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Leadership With Supervision

by on January 28, 2010 7:00 AM

In the past week and a half I have had conversations with three head coaches at Penn State about the importance of leadership. It got me thinking about the subject and reminded me of something I learned from a high school coach.

In my job coaching quarterbacks recognizing, developing and encouraging leadership is vital. It can be difficult to find natural leaders, to find young people who feel empowered enough to make crucial decisions without looking for constant guidance.

A few years ago I was in Shaker Heights High School talking to Coach Dave Sedmak, who had run a successful program for many years. That year his team struggled with a lack of leadership. He told me it was getting harder to find leadership on his teams.

I asked why he felt that it was now tougher to find leaders. The discussion that followed was something that has stuck with me ever since.

He told me that everything in a child’s life is programmed and planned by adults — and he felt that it was particularly true in sports. Because of a constant adult presence, young kids never learn to take charge.

From the earliest ages of participation, during basketball season Mom and Dad tell them when they practice and when they play the games. All the children do is follow the directions of the adults.

Until that conversation with Coach Sedmak, I really hadn’t thought about how adult control of youth sports impacted the leadership skills of young people. Now, as I see my own children’s lives, I wonder how I am shaping their leadership skills. Like most other kids, they are involved in sports run by adults. It is vastly different from my own youth.

When we wanted to play football or basketball, one of the neighborhood kids would call up the other neighborhood guys to play. We even organized our own football league without any help from our parents.

During elementary school at Our Lady of Victory we had a one-hour lunch. Lunchtime consisted of five minutes of eating followed by 55 minutes of kickball, football, basketball or dodgeball (don’t even get me started on that debate). During those 55 minutes one, of us had to assert the leadership to get the games started and set the rules.

Now the majority of a child’s activities are run by adults. It is easy to blame parenting on this phenomenon, but there are larger societal problems.

Today parents see more threats to the welfare of their children. Mothers and Fathers are wary of sending their 10-year-old out the back door to the nearest park to play all day without adult supervision.

A quick watch of the television coverage of missing and abducted children is all we need to see. Our children are the things that are most precious to us, and who can blame us for being protective?

Somewhere in the middle is the happy medium where a child is given the opportunity to make decisions and to assert leadership roles while remaining in a safe environment. My own children have benefited from coaches in their youth leagues who have encouraged them.

The games they play are for fun; fortunately the coaches my children have come in contact with have all understood that concept. But that is not always the case in youth sports. Some coaches and some parents lose the focus of what a child can learn from the sport.

The games I coach are a little more high-pressure than the games my kids play in little league, OLV Hoops or in Centre Soccer. But my approach is not that different.

I try to encourage risk-taking and leadership on the practice field. Through practice they learn which risks they take and decisions they make that can be successful and what risks they should not take. They learn how to respond to both success and adversity.

As a parent, I have tried to put these same ideas into practice with my own children. I’m trying to give them confidence to call their shots. Some day — and a day that will be here sooner than I want it to — my children will have to be the leaders of their own lives and make their own decisions.

Years ago most of us learned by participating and organizing our own games in unsupervised play time. Those days have passed and we face new realities — because of threats real or imagined and increasing fear of liability.

Hopefully within the framework of supervised sports they’ll still learn to respond in their own way to the highs and lows that await them in life — on and off the playing field.



State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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