Beyond winning: a new program fosters deeper meaning in sports

Charles Hallman/MSR News Lea B. Olsen

Youth sports today have become more a “win at all costs” ordeal as opposed to, among other things, activity that simply provides fun and good physical fitness to youngsters. Former University of Minnesota basketball star Lea B. Olsen is determined to liberate sports from so narrow a focus and bring attention to their broader benefits.

A recent National Alliance for Youth Sports poll found that 70 percent of youngsters quit sports by age 13 because they aren’t having fun anymore. Parents often are pressuring their child or children to be the best athletes in hopes of securing a college athletic scholarship, mainly because they can’t afford college tuition and other related costs.

In too many cases, youngsters become so focused on someday becoming a pro athlete that they don’t have a “Plan B” if their primary goal isn’t met. “For some reason, we created a scenario with our kids that to be a great athlete…is enough” and anything less isn’t acceptable, Olsen observes. 

The Minneapolis-born broadcaster, as a result, has launched Rethink to Win, a new “multi-channel” resource for athletes, parents, coaches and others “to rethink the world of youth sports,” she states on her website.

Herself a former high school and college athlete who later became a broadcaster and motivational speaker, Olsen says, “I’ve worked in sports my whole life. If I didn’t have sports, I don’t know where I’d be.

“My family didn’t have money, and we didn’t have connections [to colleges]. Sports opened a world to me that wasn’t there.”

However, once her two children, both now in college, got into sports, “I was seeing a different world than when I came through,” she says. Now she has pledged to use her influence and connections from her work in the youth sports world to help reshape its current oft-negative culture.

“I consider myself an advocate for athletes. I love working with athletes,” Olsen says.

When their children both participated in sports, Olsen and her husband tried hard not to put undue pressure on them. “I’m seeing so much intensity because they want their kids to become great athletes. It’s taking away from some of the learning experiences and the fun of playing, because the expectations are so high.

“Not everyone is going to be a great athlete, and that’s OK, too,” she points out. “It’s OK for your kids to play sports and have an average career.”

She remembers asking her son his thoughts of her presence at his basketball games. “I asked him if he’s OK with me just cheering positively,” and he said he didn’t want anything to distract him from listening to his coach, or playing his best, she recalled.

“What I did was keep the [score] book at the basketball games,” Olsen says proudly. “I was well-behaved. That’s how I put myself in check.

“When you are using sports to try to get to something better, it becomes intense because it is everything,” Olsen observes of those “backstage” parents. She advises that sports be put in proper perspective as it pertains to a youngster’s overall development if they choose to play sports.

She adds that undue pressure to succeed in sports can differ according to race and socioeconomic status, especially if sports are viewed as the only way to succeed in life: “I personally agree that every family has a different feel of what [sports] is for them.”

Her primary reason for starting Rethink the Win is to provide “a gathering resource” for players, coaches, parents and others involved in youth sports, Olsen explains. She also started a “Youth Sports Intervention” podcast where she and invited guests — professional athletes, coaches, sports psychologists and parents — will discuss various issues and share personal stories to show that sports is much more than winning. 

“I came up with it from scratch,” Olsen says of her new venture that kicked off this past spring. “I always thought at the very least I could go speak to athletes, which is what I do [regularly].”

The White Bear Lake Basketball Association, for example, invited her to speak to players and parents at the group’s annual tip-off event. Olsen says that WCCO-AM Radio also has reached out to her to make regular appearances on a weekly basis to speak on youth sports.

As for being successful on the field or on the court as well as in the classroom, “I don’t see why we can’t do both,” Olsen says. “We know the stats on [how] sports keep kids in school and connected. Athletes do better in school. Girls who participate in sports don’t get pregnant. We want to keep them in sports and support them while they are in it.

“I want to support kids to be full people” and not just be athletes.

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