Before you read the blog below, I need to make sure you understand how I’m going to handle this topic. It would be nearly impossible to discuss the youth team without mentioning the board of directors, coaches, parents and their children competitors. And I’m going to tackle this topic as openly and fairly as I did the adult team. However, I will not talk about specific persons associated with the youth team. I’ll also not be speaking specifically about the current team. I’ve been around several of the youth teams and my thoughts and opinions have been formed by all of them. Many of the parents are wonderful people; some I consider friends. Others are more difficult. The kids are just that, kids. The people they will become as adults have not been fully formed. All kids make mistakes. That’s how they learn. If you are a parent who’s child is currently on the youth team, or who has previously been on the youth team, then you need to know that I’m probably not writing about you. Many parents and children have come and gone since I’ve been around the team. Some of them, I have never even met or spoken to. But I will be mentioning the pros and cons of the youth team as I see them. My intention is not to anger anyone, but to give parents who are considering involving their child in competitive angling all of the facts. And to expose the larger fly fishing world to the merits and problems with competitive youth fly fishing; a topic that is seldom discussed. I think that these issues need to be looked at openly and honestly within the fly fishing community.
The U.S. Youth Fly fishing team has been around for quite some time. But its current configuration with a board of directors is relatively new. It started about 5 years ago and is based in State College, PA. Because its headquarters is in the same town as the fly shop where I work, I have had a great deal of interaction with the board of directors, coaches, parents, and many of the team members. Though the team has been mostly boys, there have been female competitors, and its membership is open to either sex.
The team really begins with the board of directors. These people are some of the most dedicated, hard-working volunteers that I have met. I see them as one of the truly altruistic segments of competitive angling. They get nothing for themselves from the competitions. They remain largely behind the scenes, not seeking the spotlight, and yet they spend a great deal of their own time and money to make the youth team possible. The board members believe that they are doing something worthwhile, helping to grow fly fishing and giving kids opportunities that they otherwise may not have. But the board is still comprised of human beings, and conflicts between personalities and philosophies do occur just like they occur in every board of directors in America.
The board of directors is responsible for appointing a head coach. This is not an easy position to fill. The team has had three head coaches in the last three years. The coaches also must freely give their own time and sometimes money to make the team work. This is not a paid position, and it requires a lot of dedication and time to travel to clinics, trials, and the yearly world championships. The coaches choose the kids that make the team. There are try-outs and fly fishing clinics with mock-competitions that qualify the kids to make the national championship. The national championship is used by the coaches to form their roster. The coaches also must deal directly with the parents and this is not always an easy task. In fact, one of the reasons the team has struggled to keep a head coach is the behavior of some of the parents.
I’m not sure if its simply a commentary on modern American society, or something that is more indicative of the youth fly fishing team, but I’ve seen some truly ugly parental behavior. I had one parent whose child’s luggage was lost at the world championships order over a thousand dollars worth of merchandise from the shop. Of course they wanted it in Europe yesterday. We did our best to get the stuff packaged and shipped, neglecting other shop duties due to the time-sensitive nature of the order. But then the child’s belongings arrived. When the parent returned to the U.S. they entered our store and aggressively demanded their money back. We would have done that anyway, but it would have been nice for the parent to notice our effort and treat my staff with a little kindness. A “thank you,” instead of rude aggressiveness, would have been proper.
Parents also called the shop constantly when my assistant manager, George Daniel, was the head coach. Even though he asked them many times not to call, it didn’t matter. I’ve learned that when some youth team parents want something the needs, feelings, and even jobs of others no longer matter. Parents have threatened law suits against coaches. Volunteer coaches. They would also come to the fly shop often to talk about their child and the team. But it didn’t matter if we were waiting on other customers or had work to complete. I had one very angry parent who wanted to replace the board of directors with parents and then let the parents pick the team. When I explained that this would surely be a conflict, the parent became enraged and began yelling, telling me that I had no idea what I was talking about. I had another customer in the store at the time and ultimately had to ask the parent to leave; only the second person I’ve had to ask to leave a fly shop in 13 years. It was that event that cemented my decision to end my small affiliation with the youth team. What is it about little leagues and youth sports that brings out such anger and poor behavior in some parents?
I think its just the nature of competition. Some parents process their child’s successes and failures in competitive angling as a reflection of themselves. And that brings out strong emotions. The interactions between some of the kids isn’t always that great either. I’ve listened to kids ridicule each other for their lack of fishing success. I’ve seen kids who have done well acquire egos so large that I’m sure they believe they could teach Lefty Kreh a thing or two. But my biggest problem is the way some of them talk about the fish. They sometimes treat them like inanimate objects, like they are more akin to 3 point shots in a basketball game than to living creatures. And that is my biggest concern with competitive youth angling. I know its important for the future of our sport to get kids involved, but is this the best way?
Our sport is a blood sport. When we hook a fish, that fish is fighting for its life. Even if you plan to release that fish, it doesn’t know that. And even with catch and release angling there is always some level of mortality. I realize that these are just fish. They do not have evolved brains capable of complex thoughts like a human’s. But there still needs to be some level of honor and respect for our quarry when we fish. And I’m not sure that every competitive youth angler understands that. My fear is that if respect for nature isn’t one of the primary focuses for the youth team, then we will get a generation of anglers who do not view wild trout as the amazing creatures they really are. The coaches do their best to instill a conservation ethic (and I’m sure some parents do too), but when you really come down to it, this team is predomiately about catching the most fish and winning the game. Will these kids, when they become adults, take the time to fight for the well being of our fisheries when the fish have been used merely as pawns in their game? I’m not sure. This concern does not apply to the adults. Most of them have angling backgrounds that didin’t start with competitions. They love fly fishing for other reasons, competing came later. But when we start the kids with fishing competitions, where does that lead? There is no one size fits all answer.
When I was a child, I played basketball, football, and soccer. For me, fishing and hunting were just fun, escapes from the pressures of competition. And I think its no coincidence that some of the things I truly care about most today revolve around the outdoors and nature. Would I still feel this way today if I were being critiqued on my fishing form and angling ability as a child? I doubt it. But, that’s just my opinion. I realize that everyone is different.
Most of the parents are great people. Some parents have written wonderful letters extolling how much the coaches have taught their children and how it has made their kid a better person. Parents have come into the shop thanking us for taking time for their child. Parents have posted comments on Internet forums relating how their child has made friends, how the team has helped them mature. Kids have found kinship in other kids who like to play outdoors, away from the many techno-gadgets that vie for their attention. Entire families have related stories about how competitive fly fishing has now brought their family together, giving them an activity where they can all interact on-stream.
I think the virtues and detriments of youth competitive angling come down to each parent and their child. If the parents have taught the child morals, and how to properly treat others, then competition can be a wonderful thing. I know it was for many of this year’s team. They got to travel to Italy and won the gold medal. The first team in U.S. history to do so. That is an experience that a child could get few places other than competitive angling.
Youth competitive angling is neither good nor bad. It is what each board member, coach, parent, and child make it to be. Is it the right thing for your child? Only you know that. There are lessons to be learned that can be found few other places. But there are also pitfalls that could have long lasting effects for the participants and even for the fly fishing community as a whole. Will it help our sport grow and attract kids that would otherwise be playing ball sports or video games? Maybe. But will this generation of anglers aquire beliefs that make them want to fight for our streams and defend the fish? It’s too soon to tell.
For more information about the youth fly fishing team, you can visit their web site here: