By Ken Reed

What’s best for the kids?

Whenever I speak to a youth sports organization, I always start with that question: What’s best for the kids?

Too often — in many cases, unintentionally — youth sports administrators, volunteers, parents and coaches let their adult egos drive the policies and decisions they make.

“The only way things will change in youth sports is if enough parents decide they’re going to use another model,” according Jay Coakley, a sports sociologist.

“Things will change in youth sports when parents begin to focus on the well-being of their kids.”

The original intent of youth sports was to assist in the holistic development of children — physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially. Instead, young children are being turned into mini-professional athletes. The result is an epidemic of overuse injuries, emotional burnout, and forced sport specialization as early as seven years old.

“We all need to think more deeply about the insanity of our youth sports culture, with its focus on early specialization in one sport, and especially, its seasons without end,” says Michael Sokolove, author of Warrior Girls.

The Aspen Institute’s Project Play initiative unveiled a “Children’s Bill of Rights in Sports” earlier this month. It’s something that is much needed in Youth SportsWorld. It was developed by a group of human rights and sports policy experts. There are eight rights:

1. To play sports: Organizations should make every effort to accommodate children’s interests to participate, and to help them play with peers from diverse backgrounds.

2. To safe and healthy environments: Children have the right to play in settings free from all forms of abuse (physical, emotional, sexual), hazing, violence, and neglect.

3. To qualified program leaders: Children have the right to play under the care of coaches and other adults who pass background checks and are trained in key competencies.

4. To developmentally appropriate play: Children have a right to play at a level commensurate with their physical, mental and emotional maturity, and their emerging athletic ability. They should be treated as young people first, athletes second.

5. To share in the planning and delivery of their activities: Children have the right to share their viewpoints with coaches and for their insights to be incorporated into activities.

6. To an equal opportunity for personal growth: Programs should invest equally in all child athletes, free of discrimination based on any personal or family characteristic.

7. To be treated with dignity: Children have the right to participate in environments that promote the values of sportsmanship, of respect for opponents, officials, and the game.

8. To enjoy themselves: Children have the right to participate in activities they consider fun, and which foster the development of friendships and social bonds.

Project Play leaders are encouraging youth sports administrators, coaches and parents to use these rights as “guardrails” in designing and implementing all youth sport activities.

Above all, adults involved with youth sports need to constantly ask themselves, “What’s best for the kids?” If that question isn’t always top-of-mind, organized youth sports can easily detour into activities to meet the needs and desires of adults. And when that happens, instead of being a positive experience, youth sports can hurt children physically, mentally, emotionally and socially.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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