The Professionalization of Youth Sports is Hurting Our Kids and Society
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 Spontaneous play, where kids form teams, make up the rules, and design their own plays, etc., has been replaced by adult-controlled youth sports, in which “grownups” create the leagues, teams, make the rules, design and call the plays, etc.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
Sports Forum Podcast
Episode #29 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: The Honorable Tom McMillen Visits League of Fans’ Sports Forum – McMillen is a former All-American basketball player, Olympian, Rhodes Scholar and U.S. Congressman, and has a long involvement with the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sport (now called the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition). We discuss the state of college athletics today, given the pressures of NIL, the transfer portal, sports gambling and huge media contracts. McMillen then provides great perspective on the poor state of physical fitness our young people are experiencing today.
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Episode #28 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: A Chat With Mano Watsa, a Leading Basketball and Life Educator – Watsa is President of PGC Basketball, the largest education basketball camp in the world. We discuss problems in youth sports today.
Episode #27 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Kids’ Sports: How We Can Take Back the Game and Restore Quality Family Time In the Process – Linda Flanagan is author of “Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania Are Ruining Kids’ Sports and Why It Matters.” We discuss how commercialized and professionalized youth sports are hurting kids and their families.
Episode #26 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: How Can We Fix Youth Sports? – John O’Sullivan is Founder and CEO of Changing the Game Project and author of “Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports Back to Our Kids.”
Episode #25 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Physical Education Should Be a Critical Component of K-12 School Design – Michael Horn is co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation.
Episode #24 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Mental Health and Athletes: Ending the Stigma – Nathan Braaten and Taylor Ricci are the founders of Dam Worth It, a non-profit created to end the stigma around mental health at colleges and universities through sport, storytelling, and community creation.
Media"How We Can Save Sports" author Ken Reed appears on Fox & Friends to explain how there's "too much adult in youth sports."
Ken Reed appears on Mornings with Gail from KFKA Radio in Colorado to discuss bad parenting in youth athletics.
“Should College Athletes Be Paid?” Ken Reed on The Morning Show from Wisconsin Public Radio
Ken Reed appears on KGNU Community Radio in Colorado (at 02:30) to discuss equality in sports and Title IX.
Ken Reed appears on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour (at 38:35) to discuss his book The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place, and to talk about some current sports issues.
- Reed Appears on Ralph Nader Radio Hour League of Fans’ sports policy director, Ken Reed, Ralph Nader and the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner discussed a variety of sports issues on Nader’s radio show as well as Reed’s updated book, How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan. Reed's book was released in paperback in February, and has a new introduction and several updated sections.
League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
Vanderbilt Sport & Society - On The Ball with Andrew Maraniss with guest Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director for League of Fans and author of How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
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