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The Blame Game

By Kelly Erickson, 01/02/15, 12:15PM CST


It seems almost inevitable in youth sports: when the result doesn’t meet expectations, blame starts to filter through the team.

If you listen closely, you can overhear it as kids vent frustration following the game.

“The ref is blind.”

“He was so unfair.”

“He barely called anything against the other team.”

But it’s not always the kids blaming the refs. Sometimes blame is placed on the coaches or teammates. Sometimes it’s the coaches or parents blaming others. It’s the blame game, and like a virus, it can plague a team and leave long-lasting side effects.

According to Hans Skulstad of the Minnesota Center for Sports and Mind, this blame game simply comes down to avoiding responsibility.

“It’s usually something that people do to avoid responsibility for their own part in a situation,” Skulstad said. “They look to others to assign responsibility for why they failed.

“People make mistakes, but the root of the problem [for the blame game] is it’s a way to deal with the unknown or the fear that you’re not good enough.”

Skulstad noted that what often leads to this avoidance of responsibility is a fixed mindset – a mindset in which people believe they have certain qualities or traits they may judge against an arbitrary standard that they believe can’t be developed or changed.

The blame game prevents athletes, coaches and parents from being able to access a developmentally competitive mindset, as Skulstad calls it. When athletes have a development mindset, they can focus on competing against themselves, improving on their last performance and ultimately self-coach.

“It’s a mindset that focuses on your ability to deal with adversity by being able to forgive yourself for the mistakes made, deal with the unknown, see your failures, and deal with your failures as learning opportunities,” Skulstad said. “When adults around kids engage in the blame game, you don’t reinforce that mindset, you reinforce a fixed mindset – which keeps kids from developing and growing into the best players they can be.”

If this positive mindset can be achieved, if athletes can break out of a fixed mindset, the blame game can become a thing of the past.

The main way to help reinforce this developmentally competitive mindset is to simply ask kids broad, open-ended questions after a game, asking them how they thought they performed, if they challenged themselves and, most importantly, if they had fun.

Skulstad is not the only one attempting to bring change. There are several groups working to create a stronger, more positive atmosphere in youth sports in Minnesota, including Mental Edge, and the Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA). PCA is a nation-wide organization that partners with schools and youth sports organizations (such as Minnesota Hockey) and provides workshops, courses and books. Its focus is to foster a fun, competitive environment while teaching important life lessons through sports.

“A coach, to me, has an incredible opportunity to influence the community of their team,” Shaun Goodsell of Mental Edge said. “It starts with their philosophy of how they coach. It progresses towards how they develop talent and what their beliefs about what generates success and what defines success. Unfortunately for many people, they define success just in terms of wins and losses.

“It’s never going to start, the environment’s never going to change if we continue to focus on and have an obsession with mistakes and failure.”

In Goodsell’s opinion, if hockey associations were to invest in building a strong community and relationships between the players and coaches, and giving coaches the proper training and people skills, it can pay dividends in the future. Rather than putting resources into skills clinics, creating a positive atmosphere will lead to greater participation and put a focus on what youth sports are supposed to be about: having fun.

“In my working with kids, I’m seeing more and more kids choosing to be with people and to be in groups where they feel uplifted, encouraged and believed in,” Goodsell said. “Those communities are growing faster than in communities where they don’t represent those kinds of things.”

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