By Ken Reed

I often say there’s too much “adult” in youth sports.

It’s parents and coaches that push kids to specialize in a single sport at age 9 or 10, which too often leads to overuse injuries and emotional burnout. It’s parents and coaches that bring win-at-all-cost (WAAC) attitudes to youth sports fields, courts and ice rinks when kids just want to play with friends and have fun (and maybe get an ice cream cone after the game). It’s parents and coaches that focus on college athletic scholarships for young athletes despite statistics that show that only one to two percent of high school senior athletes get any type of financial aid for sports. The percentage of kids that get full-ride scholarships is well under one percent. It’s parents and coaches that act like military drill sergeants with children, driving them to drop out of competitive sports in droves before high school.

What’s going on here?

“A lot of parents have a belief that says, ‘How well my kid does on the field reflects on me as a parent,’” says Jim Thompson, founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance. “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.”

Psychologists have dubbed this Achievement-By-Proxy Syndrome. It’s a condition in which adults try to make up for their own stunted athletic careers by trying to live out their personal goals and dreams through children.

As a whole, our youth sports system is broken. 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), our kids are getting hurt physically and burned out emotionally at a greater clip, and at an earlier age, than ever before.

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 by kids 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.

Too many youth sports parents and coaches are pushing their kids too hard, and in the process, taking the passion and joy out of sports.

It’s important to note that finding sports fun is highly correlated with good performance.

As sociologist Alfie Kohn notes,” Nothing, according to the research, predicts excellence like finding the task fun.”

The bottom line is, youth sports parents and coaches need to focus less on winning 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, and yes, to have fun.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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