By Ken Reed
The Huffington Post
October 26, 2015

The latest from youth sports world: A youth football league was forced to cancel its season due to violent threats against league officials.

Nice. It’s always great when adults provide positive role models for 12-year-olds.

Earlier this month, ammunition shells were placed at the front gate of the league in question’s youth football field. The shells had league officers names printed in permanent marker on them. Previously this season, a league game was rescheduled due to violent threats made by adults against adults. At another league game, a fight between parents broke out.

Increasingly, aggressive — and sometimes violent — coach and parent behavior is ruining the youth sports experience.

Another troubling trend is that fewer kids are participating in youth sports these days. The reason? Kids don’t like the pressure adults (parents, coaches) put on them in our ultra competitive youth sports scene — a scene marked by elite club travel teams and one-sport specialization at the expense of recreational leagues for all young people.

Youth sports participation is down. The number of total youth sports played by children plummeted 10 percent in the five years between 2009 and 2014.

In a well-done article by the Washington Post’s Michael S. Rosenwald, youth sports author Mark Hyman, a sports management professor at George Washington University, summarizes the current situation nicely.

“The system is now designed to meet the needs of the most talented kids,” says Hyman.

“We no longer value participation. We value excellence. The adults have won. If we wiped the slate clean and reinvented youth sports from scratch by putting the physical and emotional needs of kids first, how different would it look? Nothing would be recognizable.”

Jim Thompson, founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance, believes that parents who get a big part of their self-identity through their children’s activities are a big part of the problem.

“A lot of parents have a belief that says, ‘How well my kid does on the field reflects on me as a parent,'” says Thompson. “One of my mentors, John Gardner, once said, ‘The toughest thing kids have to face is the unfulfilled lives of their parents.’ I think there’s a lot of truth in that.”

Ah, youth sports: a chance to run around, stay fit, play games with friends, learn some valuable life lessons and have fun.

At least that’s how it used to be.

Today, our kids’ sports have been hijacked by adults who professionalize them and attempt to meet their own needs through youth sports. For the most part, these parents and coaches usually have good intentions but the damage to our young people is real nonetheless.

As our performance culture increasingly focuses on the development of elite athletes at the youth sports level (in many cases, at the expense of a “sports for all” philosophy that would significantly help address our country’s childhood obesity epidemic, improve academic performance, and lessen emotional and behavioral problems, among other benefits), our kids are burning out emotionally at a greater clip and at an earlier age.

Research shows that nearly 80 percent of all children who play adult-organized youth sports drop out by the time they’re 13. The reason most often cited is that it’s no longer fun. The primary reason it’s no longer fun? Overzealous adults, in the form of parents and/or coaches.

Youth sports parents and coaches need to focus less on winning (and sometimes making money when it comes to youth sports entrepreneurs) and more on sports as a vehicle to build teamwork and leadership abilities, improve sports skills, enhance fitness, promote healthy lifestyles, gain experiences that teach lifetime lessons and shape values, develop friendships — some for a lifetime — and have fun (what surveys show kids want most from sports participation).

“In many ways, there’s no more important issue than changing the youth sports culture,” says Thompson. “Transforming youth sports can positively impact our country in many ways. How youth sports are conducted infiltrates our collective mindset.”

So, how do we transform youth sports? There are several good youth sports reform organizations out there, including Thompson’s Positive Coaching Alliance.

But we all need to start with some basic principles when it comes to sports participation and our youth.

In Tom Farrey’s excellent book on youth sports, Game On: How the Pressure to Win At All Costs Endangers Youth Sports and What Parents Can Do About It, former General Electric CEO, Jack Welch suggested the “valuable and important challenge” for youth sports was to achieve the trifecta of 1) excellence; 2) character development; and 3) broad-based participation.

That three-part objective sounds fine to me as long as “excellence” means focusing on intrinsic measures (giving your best effort, competing against one’s potential, maximizing the gifts one has, etc.), and not just extrinsic measures (e.g., winning medals, team championships, or scholarships).

In regards to Welch’s reference to “character development,” use of that term can have some volatile consequences. It means different things to different people, and in some people’s eyes has religious connotations. However, if by “character development” Welch means things like developing the whole child, stressing effort, attitude and sportsmanship in competition, learning from mistakes, and spending some time developing things like leadership and teamwork skills, then he’s right on track.

In terms of Welch’s third objective for youth sports, broad-based participation, I couldn’t agree more. In an era of a childhood obesity epidemic, it’s critical to increase participation in youth sports.

I would add “a good dose of perspective” to Welch’s trifecta and then I think we have a good foundation for transforming youth sports and increasing the positive experiences that our children have on the nation’s playing fields and courts.

Ken Reed is Sports Policy Director for League of Fans.

Follow Ken Reed on Twitter.


Comments are closed.

Set your Twitter account name in your settings to use the TwitterBar Section.