By John O'Sullivan
March 18, 2015
The other day I had a conversation with a coaching colleague about the state of youth sports. I stated that the emphasis on travel sports and playing multiple games per day for young children was hurting kids and damaging sports.
“I agree with what you are saying,” he said, “but you are forgetting that youth sports is now a form of entertainment for the parents. We are just giving them what they want.”
Sadly, he was right, and I hear this a lot. The question is “should we be giving parents what serves them best, or what serves their children the best?”
Is that even a question?
Youth sports has become less a tool to educate children about sport and life, and more often a place where parents go to be entertained by their kids. They pay good money, add a great deal of chaos to their lives, and spend their valuable time travelling far and wide watching their kids play sports. When the product they see on the field does not live up to their perceived notion of the value of their investment, they get upset at the kids, the coaches, and at the schools and clubs. They want their moneys worth. They want to be entertained. But at what cost?
Now I know this will upset some people who read this. They will say that they would do anything for their kids, that they happily spend this time and money for their children. I believe them. But if youth sports ended tomorrow for your child, honestly answer for yourself whose life would be more disrupted, yours, or your child’s? That answer can be scary for some people.
I find it sad that we trade in the health and safety of our kids for the adult need to be entertained and get a return on our investment, yet that is exactly what we do. Can you name a professional contact sport that plays multiple games in a day? There are none. College sports? There are none. High-level high school sports, or leagues like the US Developmental Academy in soccer? Nope. These highly trained athletes do not play multiple games in a day, and rarely play games on back-to-back days, because it is not safe, healthy, or conducive to optimum performance.
Sadly, in youth sport we justify the travel to soccer or basketball tournaments by having kids play five games in 48 hours “to get our moneys worth.” We take developing children, often in their growth spurt and even more susceptible to injury, and place demands upon them that we do not place on elite pro or college athletes. Why?
The only reason I see is to entertain the people paying the bills, and justify the expense of getting to the venue. This must be it, because there is not a single sport scientist, physician, fitness expert, or professional coach who would treat their elite players this way, or recommend this path for younger athletes. Not one.
Using youth sports as a form of adult entertainment is just one example of what I call the “adultification” of youth sports. It is the introduction and prioritization of adults’ needs and values over those of the child. It turns the focus from process to outcome and from free play to deliberate practice. It creates barriers to participation financially, forces year round commitments far too young, does not allow for sport sampling, and is creating a generation of burned out, beat down kids who walk away from sports.
“Adultification” manifests itself in four main ways. If we want sports to become a place where kids want to spend their time and energy, we need to end it, now. Here is how it rears its’ head:
1. The push to become “elite” at younger ages
As Sherry Keuhl of the Kansas City Star recently wrote “Am I the only one old enough to remember when ‘competing at the elite level’ meant an athlete was training to make an Olympic team? Because now it also means a family is spending their weekend in scenic Omaha and probably dropping close to $1,000 (at least $250 of that in entry fees) so their 11-year-old can play volleyball in a junior high gym with 750 other “elite” sixth-graders.”
This is happening in every sport, all across our country. Over lunch recently, a family member of mine told me about his 11 year-old son having to forgo the upcoming basketball season.
“Why?” I asked. “Yes, he is a little small for his age, but he is a heck of an athlete, a very good basketball player, you are 6’ 3”, his mom is tall, he is going to be a monster.”
“It’s not that we don’t want him to play, or that he doesn’t want to play,” he said. “We just can’t, the commitment is too much with multiple kids in sports.” And then he told me the story.
You see my family member lives in a large metropolitan area, and his son is on the local basketball club “B” team, which is fine, except for the fact that this season was travel season. Every weekend they were travelling for tournaments. These events were usually out of state, and when you added in the costs, time commitment, and overall craziness, it was just too much.
The sad part is that his son’s team could probably find 100 competitive games within a one-hour drive, yet the “elite system” demanded that this was travel season. If you wanted to be on a team, there was no time to actually practice. You needed to hit the road and lay out thousands of dollars to play the same level of competition you could play any evening of the week and still be home for dinner. This is not “elite.” This is insane.
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