Greg Olsen embraces role as pro youth sports dad and coach, provides helpful advice

BALTIMORE ― Greg Olsen used to be one of those coaches.

You know them. The ones who go all out to win, whether it’s travel baseball or church league basketball.

“Everything was about manipulating the game,” says the three-time Pro Bowl tight end turned broadcaster and father of three. “Every youth baseball game, you're like, 'We gotta find a way to win it.’ ”

Now picture Olsen in the other dugout. He’s 6-5 and has played nearly a decade and a half in the NFL. He has lived and breathed sports most of his life. If anyone truly understood the players, he thought, it was him. He was still throwing off tacklers for the Carolina Panthers when he began coaching his sons, and he was ready to run through a wall for the players on his team.

They were 7.

“I learned a lot about maybe the ways that I thought we should approach youth sports might not have been real positive for everyone else,” Olsen told the crowd at Johns Hopkins University as emcee of last week’s Project Play Summit. “That's a conversation for another day and a couch and psychologist, I guess.”

Olsen and his wife, Kara, have constantly found themselves at dinner with friends “pretending to care about what's going on in your life,” then delving into kids sports after five minutes.

What team are they on?

How many days a week do you practice?

What tournaments are you entering?

Sound familiar? Olsen realized nobody has completely figured out how to manage youth sports. It’s a process we continue to learn from each other.

To that end, Olsen has brought together parents, coaches, pro athletes, Olympians, and medical and health experts the past two years to go on an informed journey through his Youth Inc. podcasts. This “all-encompassing” adventure, as he calls it, is just beginning.

Olsen still plans to continue his role as an NFL broadcaster this fall, even as Tom Brady enters the Fox TV booth. ("As of now," Olsen says of his affiliation with Fox.) But he is also all in as a “a professional youth sports dad/coach,” he says.

At last week’s summit, Olsen shared five lessons we can use to help navigate youth sports' nebulous waters.

(Questions and responses are edited for length and clarity.)

1. The value of youth sports has 'nothing to do' with the actual sport

Olsen grew up in the Jersey suburbs of New York as the son of a high school football coach and physical education teacher. Like all of our upbringings, it shaped his approach to parenting sons Tate, 12, and T.J, 11, and daughter Talbot, 11.

His father, Chris, regularly led Wayne Hills High to state championship games. Olsen and his brothers, Christian and Kevin, were the waterboys and ballboys, idolizing the players Dad coached.

“It’s not luck,” Chris might tell them. “It’s a lot of hard work.”

The Olsen brothers, who all went on to play major college football, learned about dedicating yourself to a larger entity, a core value that remains ingrained within sports today.

USA TODAY: How would you describe yourself as a sports parent?

Greg Olsen: Everything that we preach in our house is, whether it's a team I coach or a team someone else coaches, you are fully committed to that team. If there's optional practices, we're in. We are not missing. We're not picking and choosing when we go.

I'm a big believer that the vast majority of what these kids are getting out of youth sports has nothing to do with the actual sport.

I want my kids to learn accountability. I want my kids to learn how to be told things they otherwise might not want to hear by authority figures they may or may not like; no different than in school with a teacher that may not be their cup of tea. I think that's life. That's the way it goes. So we teach the process, putting in the work. Did you do everything in your power this week? And if the weekend tournament goes well, it rewards that work. If you skipped a workout, then how do you expect to have success?

We don't ever preach, "You have to win every game." We don't ever preach, "You have to be the star player." But you do have to play up to your standards. You do have to give your team their best effort. You do have to be coachable. You do have to display good attitudes after you strike out. If you slam the bat … it’s not gonna be a fun conversation for you driving home. Those are the things that we emphasize. And they're non negotiable in our house. Whether you win or lose the game is completely secondary.

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2. Youth sports isn't about winning games

What is it that makes us winners? It’s not just winning all the time.

“I worked for Nick Saban for four years, and he never talked about winning,” Maryland football coach Mike Locksley, who also participated in the Project Play Summit, told USA TODAY Sports. “He always talked about the process of winning.

“De-emphasize winning and make it about your development.”

Olsen agrees.

USA TODAY: What is your biggest piece of advice for beginners looking to get into youth sports?

GO: I think the longer I've done it, the more I've just become clear that if development drives winning, you're good. The idea should be to win as a byproduct of the improvement, the investment into the kids, teaching them how to do the skills of the sport, how to compete, how to be competitive. We believe that if we do all those things over a long period of time, we’ll continue to get better (and) we will win as a result. If you’re gonna beat us, you gotta just be flat out better than us. And the longer we've done it as my kids have gotten older, and we've seen the super teams and the guest playing and chasing a different weekend tournament with a different team. I stop and say, "What is the goal?" Is the goal to be in a race to be, "Who’s the best 12-year-old?" Or is the goal to be, "Who's the best 18 year old, 20 year old?"

No one looks back in high school and says, "Hey, but remember (at) 11 years old, you guys lost that girls basketball tournament in Myrtle Beach."

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3. Define success by how you emerge from the experience, not where you end up. There is a difference.

Olsen and his brothers didn’t grow up thinking they would be college or professional football players. Their biggest goal was to run out on the field and play for their dad on Friday nights like all those guys before them.

Today, our kids’ athletic futures always seem to be in the back of our minds. We are setting ourselves up for disappointment at the end of our kids’ sports journey, which is also something we can celebrate.

USA TODAY: You said up on the stage that you didn't really think about the next level until deep into high school. Is that's still something that can happen in today's world?

GO: I think it has to. We never, ever talked about college. We never, ever talked about going to play professionally. If you're doing all this work for your son or daughter under the impression that you're only doing it for the return on investment, you should stop doing it. Because the odds are just not in your favor that it's ever gonna pay off. We're doing it because I want my kids to play for their middle school baseball, football, girls basketball, whatever. And then one day, be in a position that they can play for their varsity high school team. And get all those experiences, play with their friends, play in the community, learn what that's all about.

If they play beyond that, great. I'm not saying it's not a good long-term goal. I just think too many parents these days, their rationale for the money, the training, the travel, the spending, the jumping teams, the moving high schools, is because the only goal is, "We have to make college." I tell my kids all the time, "If we don't reach that goal is that a failure?" It's only a failure if you didn't do everything in your power along the way to have success. If you do, if you work your butt off through high school and you have a great high school career and that's where your sports your ends, that's a success. And I think sometimes we put the destination as the goal instead of the journey.

4. Don't coddle your kids. Let them compete - and struggle - to learn the lessons of life.

Project Play, designed by the Aspen Institute, strives to build healthy communities through sports. It’s an especially important tool for kids whose families can’t afford to pay for travel sports.

At the Project Play Summit, I learned about organizations like Every Kid Sports and Leveling the Playing Field, which cover youth sports registration fees and provide equipment for income-restricted families.

As a city council member in 2015, Baltimore mayor Brandon Scott helped jump-start what is now known as the Volo Kids Foundation, a free access program that has expanded to eight U.S. cities.

Scott grew up in Baltimore running track and playing baseball, basketball and football through his local rec center. He excelled at running and carries its lessons with him today.

“We took that into life, really, and think about how we challenge each other and push each other,” he told USA TODAY Sports. “We're constantly pushing each other to see how we can be the best version of ourselves. And that's really what you learn from sports: you learn how you're gonna to deal with adversity, deal with pressure situations. ... How to be a leader.”

They are skills similar to what Olsen learned from his dad, and ones we can impart on our kids through their teams.

USA TODAY: For parents whose kids are just getting into youth sports or want to keep them in it, what is your advice?

GO: Put them in environments where they can grow and don't be afraid for them to every once in a while fail. If the team's continuing to grow, and maybe at this point, other girls or boys are further ahead, other teams are further ahead, that's OK. Find great coaches, find people that are willing to invest in the kids.

I'm a big stickler for developing the skills of the sport, but more importantly the skills of life: Being told the truth. Being honest with yourself, even if you don't like it. That’s a hard lesson for a lot of kids, especially these days because people don't like telling kids the truth. People want to make their kids lives easy. I'd rather my kids struggled now so they learn how to deal with life as they get older.

Steve Borelli, aka Coach Steve, has been an editor and writer with USA TODAY since 1999. He spent 10 years coaching his two sons’ baseball and basketball teams. He and his wife, Colleen, are now sports parents for a high schooler and middle schooler. His column is posted weekly. For his past columns, click here.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Greg Olsen, former NFL tight end, offers lessons for youth sports