Why team celebrations matter so much in youth sports
| 4 min read
Erin Carino Salinas, a boys’ basketball coach in Burbank, Calif., didn’t wait until the season ended to throw a team party; she hosted one at the start of the 2019-20 season. She invited the 9- and 10-year-old boys and their parents to her home to eat snacks and shoot hoops in her driveway, which helped the team — the Warriors — get to know one another before their first practice. Part of her motivation was her oldest son who, for two years, was on a baseball team where it seemed like no one was connecting or getting to know one another, she says.
“When the kids get along, they form a trust. They want to go to practice. They have fun at the games,” Salinas says. Same goes for parents, who, once they know each other, tend to stick around during practice to socialize. “The team becomes a family, and that is what is the most important at this age – not trophies.”
Jenny Etnier, PhD, professor of sport and exercise psychology in the Department of Kinesiology at University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and author of Coaching for the Love of the Game: A Practical Guide to Working with Young Athletes, is a huge proponent of the team celebration. “Team celebrations contribute to the overall experience of joy at being a member of the team,” says Etnier. “They also provide an opportunity for relationship-building and for learning to value one another.”
And the celebrations themselves can go well beyond pizza and cupcakes.
Etnier, who coached youth sports herself for decades, says that coaches who want to cap the season with something different could try making hot dogs or s’mores at an outdoor firepit, or gathering for a “camp-out” style event in someone’s yard — pajamas required.
Teams can also give back by volunteering together at a women’s shelter or soup kitchen, or doing something like packing backpacks for a charity drive, or serving a meal at a Ronald McDonald House. “These events give athletes the chance to feel good about themselves, to get to know one another better, and to give back to the community,” she says.
There’s no rule that says team parties are solely an end-of-season thing, or even that they should be reserved for honoring your team’s biggest moments. For example, pre-pandemic, Salinas invited the Warriors and their parents for team outings to a comedy club with a kid-friendly night, or to a movie night. None of the events were required, just extra ways for the team to bond.
Another idea for coaches is to create team experiences after practice that aren’t just about learning plays, Etnier says. Switch things up from soccer, baseball or basketball with a round of team handball, ultimate frisbee or capture the flag. Or just do something goofy, like a three-legged race. The point isn’t to name winners so much as have fun. A kids-versus-parents pick-up game can also be fun — and good-natured competition — for everyone.
When you make a point to fit in non-practice, non-game-focused moments throughout the year, the team has more to celebrate at the end of the season, whether it’s a winning or a losing one. At Salinas’ end-of-season party for the Warriors, she made a point of highlighting each player’s special qualities and contributions to the team. As a former high school basketball player who, one season, wanted to quit because of a coach who was all about work but never made her feel supported, it’s important to her that players feel valued — as well as connected.
“I don’t want a player to end the season not wanting to play again,” Salinas says. She makes a point to call out each and every kid and emphasize how they made an impact. It’s about giving every player — and their parents — a story about where they started, and what they achieved, together. That is, after all, what it means to be part of a team.