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Adults are taking all the fun out of youth sports

by Matt Young

It is widely understood that youth sports are a dress rehearsal for life.

Inside a relatively safe environment are many of life’s essential lessons: winning, losing, roles, responsibility, feedback, communication, teamwork and more. Few would argue the positive impact youth sport has on building community, the village it takes to raise our children.

Yet despite the evidence-based benefits, youth sport has come under increasing pressure over the past decade through what many are calling the monetization and specialization of play. We’ve turned the play into work for millions of kids, and in doing so are now watching millions of kids stop working.

Socially, youth sport was built on the foundation of fun, an opportunity to try new pursuits over new seasons, meet new friends and engage in friendly competition.

But if you were to head down to the local diamond, pitch or, most notoriously, arena, you may be hard pressed to call what’s unfolding in front of your eyes “fun.” You’d likely see a large percentage of kids sitting on the bench as coaches try to get the youth-/sport-/career-defining win; a large percentage of parents yelling at their kids, officials or coaches; and a large percentage of organizations doing things the way they’ve always been done in a world that changes weekly.

Many of our youth sports systems are no longer about development (the process), they are about the victory (the outcome). We’re watching the early specialization of sports where single sports are condoning year-round programming under the guise of greater rewards on the other end. Statistics are showing the exact opposite. The very college institutions we have made the focus for our 10-year-olds have gone as far as publishing articles outlining how they prefer to recruit multi-sport athletes.

Economically, many are now thriving from the business of youth sports specialization: prestigious camps, private lessons, elite clubs and now academies where, for the right price, you can increase your kid’s chances at getting to the big leagues starting at age 12. Sadly, few parents (the decision makers) educate or care to educate themselves on the reality that fewer than six out of every 100 high school athletes will go on to play a college sport, and less than 2% of those will continue to the next level.

In hockey alone, there are minor associations, private clubs, and academies selling the dream to those willing to pull out their pocketbooks. Hockey is now a year-round staple, as is soccer, and if parents don’t like what they see close to home, kids are shipped to other communities to get that elusive “edge.”

With this, what steps should we be taking to support youth sports development in our communities? Some recommendations:

  • Focus on fun. Don’t ruin our kids’ youth sports journey by making their experience feel like work.
  • Enjoy watching your kids play. You have a small window, so as often as possible, let your child know how much you enjoy watching them play sports. “I love watching you play” is the most powerful sentence you can speak.
  • Educate yourself. There is research and science on long-term athlete development. Use it to inform your decision making as a parent, coach or organization, and hold people accountable.
  • Recognize the process of athlete development versus the immediate gratification of outcome/score. The score reveals very little about how athletes are progressing.
  • Introduce/expose your kids to as many sports as possible. Avoid being fooled into believing there is only one sport for them.

Our youth sports systems are integral aspects of the community ecosystem. We must consider doing more to preserve their existence and future sustainability.

Matt Young is a community coach, Top 40U40 Business Award recipient and member of the B.C. and Canadian Physical Literacy Strategy groups.


Don’t tell the parents, but the hardest lessons are for them.

Youth sports are an excellent place to learn stronger character traits and become a better person. And that's just on the sidelines.

I hear they're good for the kids, too.

Seriously. I think I've had to do a lot more on the personal growth side than Emerson has, even if he's the one that puts on the uniform and walks out on the diamond, or slips on those big spongy gloves and settles down in front of the soccer goal.

Kids, they're the experts on play. If we gave a dozen of them an old soccer ball and left them alone in Caldwell Park for the afternoon, they'd probably organize the match of their lives. When I was a kid in the mountains we had pine-ball games with broken-off Ponderosa branches and carefully selected cones. Why do I remember? Because it was so much fun.

It's not that adults add nothing. But let's face it, often what we add is not pretty.

At 10, Emerson is now in his fifth year of playing organized baseball and soccer. Unlike me, for better or worse, he didn't grow up running wild in the woods. There are practices, and drills, and game times and apps to help us keep track of it all.

Along the way, I've had to learn a few things. I'm quite certain my education is still in its early stages, but here are the takeaways so far:

  1. It's not all about me. This is a recurring theme all the way through. When Emerson gets up to bat, I can almost feel the grip in my own hands. If he swings at a bad pitch, I see my own mediocre eye-hand coordination coursing through his veins (even though, lucky kid, he has more of his mother's athleticism). I experience every little success and failure as if it were mine.

    But it's not. Those things belong to him. If he goes back out to center field after a botched play and catches the next long fly ball that's hit his direction, he's the one who did that. If he makes a great save and then gets beat on a goal, he's the one who will ultimately figure out what went wrong. His failures are his to learn from, and his successes are his to soar on.

    Have I got that one down? No.

  2. For heaven's sake, shut up. I'm not sure what it is about sitting in the bleachers or standing on the edge of the field that seems to disable that part of the brain that regulates speech. It just comes pouring out, a stream of commentary and critique, encouragement and (we think) enlightenment.

    The worst possible situation for a kid — and we put them in it all the time — is to have the coach yelling one thing and the parent yelling something else. It's bad enough if they're both hollering basically the same direction. But frequently the instructions are completely different, unrelated or contradictory. "Lay off the bad pitches!" yells Dad. "Swing the bat!" yells Coach. When the kid strikes out while trying to think about how to do both, whose fault is it?

    John O'Sullivan, an expert on coaching who thinks a lot about these things, recently wrote a blog post that included a list of "six ways adults take the enjoyment out of sports." Every single one of them involves overuse of the mouth. Shouting instructions from the sidelines, yelling at kids while the ball is in motion, disrespecting officials, questioning the coach, disparaging the way teammates play. No. 6 is a big one for me: Lectures on the ride home. Oh yeah, that.

  3. Coach a team, if you can. If you can't, see rule No. 2.

  4. You can't make anybody love something they don't. Yes, I had already sort of learned this lesson from several ex-girlfriends but had to learn it all over again as a parent. When Emerson was in preschool, we tried having him play soccer and he wanted no part of it. I decided this was the time to prove a point about sticking with commitments. I ended up holding a confused and sobbing little boy on the sidelines and wondering just how bad at this parenting thing I could really be.

  5. Wear sunscreen. Seriously, it's dangerous to sit in that sun for two hours at a time.

By the way, if you're at all involved in this stuff or know anyone who is, O'Sullivan has a foundation called Changing the Game Project that is worth a look. It's at changingthegameproject.com.

Letting kids play and just love their games is tougher than it sounds. Which is what makes it so good at building character. For adults.

Reach Editor Silas Lyons at 225-8210 or silas.lyons@redding.com. He's on Facebook and Instagram, and on Twitter @silaslyons_RS.