By Ken Reed

For years, Fred Bowen has written a column for young readers on youth sports topics for The Washington Post. He’s also a successful children’s sports book author. If you have young athletes in your family, or work with them, it’s well worth introducing them to Bowen’s work.

Recently, Bowen wrote a column that departed a little from his typical topics.  He wrote about the need to teach our kids more lessons about democracy and how government works, as well as creating opportunities to practice those lessons. He believes sports present a great chance to do both those things.

I agree.  We certainly could use more “disorganized” youth sports (as Bowen calls pickup games) and less adult-driven organized youth sports in this country.  One thing’s for sure, if you study youth sports in this country, in any depth, you soon realize there is too much adult in youth sports.

Disorganized sports (pickup or freelance, if you prefer), help kids learn to think for themselves, and develop problem-solving, leadership and teamwork skills, things this country could certainly use more of today.

At their best, sports are a place where kids can learn to be part of a team and work within a group,” writes Bowen.  “In other words, sports can be a place where kids can learn about democracy.”

I would venture to say that most young athletes today have never even organized their own pickup games.  Their sports experiences are driven solely by adults. Adults who tell them when to get into the minivan for a practice, game, or personal training session.  Often times, parents will drive their kids an hour or more to play on a club travel team in which none of the kids involved live in the same neighborhood.  

Kids organizing their own baseball, basketball or touch football games in a nearby park, via a phone tree they develop on their own, are a thing of the past. Carefree summers in which friends get together to play some ball in a nearby field, as in the movie The Sandlot, are merely nostalgic notions in this day and age.

“I think kids would learn more about democracy if they played disorganized sports,” writes Bowen.  I do too.

“Disorganized sports are games such as pickup basketball or soccer matches where sweatshirts on the ground are goals,” continues Bowen.  “Games where kids — not parents or coaches — pick the teams, make the rules and call their own fouls.”

I bet the fun quotient would go way up for kids if they could participate in more disorganized sports.  And we’d have fewer burnout cases, I’m sure.  

It’s important to note that allowing and encouraging more freelance play and pickup games doesn’t mean you’re giving up on helping kids become the best they can be in a given sport.  In fact, helping to ensure that sports remain fun for kids is also the best way to enhance the chances of long-term success.  If adults make sports fun for kids, there’s a good chance they’ll develop a passion for the game.  When that happens, they’ll be intrinsically motivated to succeed and they won’t need coaches or parents constantly pushing them and dragging them to practice.  As sociologist Alfie Kohn notes, “Nothing, according to the research, predicts excellence like finding the task fun.”

Now, all of this doesn’t mean we have to junk organized youth sports.  It just means looking for creative ways that kids can occasionally organize their own sports activities.  For example, organized youth sports coaches across the country could let their kids create the day’s practice plan a few times every month.  Or, periodically, they could let their young athletes plan their own “scrimmage” days, including letting them pick teams, make their own rules and solve their own problems.

It might just result in better athletes, and more importantly, better citizens going forward.

— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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