By Ken Reed

Increasingly, educational, physical, emotional and spiritual developmental goals for youth and high school sports programs are being brushed aside by win-at-all-costs (WAAC) and profit-at-all-costs (PAAC) ethos.

The professionalization of youth sports organizations, our “little leagues,” is appalling. Adults – parents and coaches — are treating youth sports like the big-time pro and college versions. Kids quickly learn from the adults in their lives that winning is priority one, whether that ethic is actually verbalized to them or not.

Sadly, the professionalization of youth sports has resulted in virtually total control by adults today. Spontaneous play, where kids form teams, make up the rules, and design their own plays, etc., has been replaced by adult-controlled youth sports, in which “grownups” create the leagues, teams, make the rules, design and call the plays, etc. – often for their own entertainment and ego gratification, and even worse, sometimes simply to realize a profit.

It’s not uncommon for youth football teams, made up of 10-and-11-year-olds, to have six coaches, including offensive and defensive coordinators. Young people become nothing more than performers in a youth sports entertainment spectacle, under the authoritarian oversight of the head coach.

Veteran sports journalist Robert Lipsyte describes the all too common youth sports environment this way:

“A million Little Leaguers stand for hours while a criminally obese ‘coach’ drills the joy of sport out of their souls, makes them self-conscious and fearful, teaches them technique over movement, emphasizes dedication, sacrifice, and obedience instead of accomplishment and fun.”

Specialization is another trend in the movement to professionalize our young athletes. Athletes are specializing in a single sport at younger and younger ages. Many 10-12 year old soccer, volleyball, basketball, hockey, baseball, and softball players are pressured by parents and coaches to play competitively in one sport, year-round, in an effort to maximize the young athlete’s development. This despite quantitative and qualitative research that has shown that early specialization in one sport is rarely beneficial, and is often detrimental, to an athlete’s overall development.

Moreover, research also reveals that kids that specialize in one sport at an early age burnout sooner and suffer more from overuse injuries. Nevertheless, parents are increasingly shipping their kids to specialized sports trainers for training regimens similar to what major college and pro athletes go through.

As the perceived rewards become greater (athletic scholarships, professional sports contracts, Olympic team berths, etc.), parents are putting more and more time and money into youth sports. Many families, most often middle and upper-middle class suburbanites, are now spending more than ten thousand dollars on club teams, personal training, travel leagues, etc., by the time their child is a senior in high school, all in the hopes of landing a major college athletic scholarship – an occurrence that is much more rare than most parents and their children realize.

A disturbing trend at the high school level is the increasing infiltration of corporations on high school campuses. These high schools, in search of revenue to support dwindling sports budgets – or simply to keep up with the Joneses – have turned to corporate sponsors to fill the bill. Stadiums, gyms, locker rooms and other facilities are now plastered with corporate brands, often “junk food” companies eager to exploit an easily susceptible target audience. All of this while we are in the middle of a childhood obesity epidemic.

Where has this WAAC and PAAC model of youth sports led us? Studies have shown that 80 percent of children drop out of sports completely between the ages 12 and 16.

The bottom line is we’re using a youth sports model that’s failing to build a lifetime love of sports participation and physical fitness.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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