Jan 30

3 Myths Destroying the Youth Sports Experience

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I received this article from SIRC (Sport Information Resource Centre) based in Ottawa, Canada. The original article is written by John O’Sullivan, founder and CEO of “Change the Game”, and is published in Problems in Youth Sports, Relative Age Effect, Specialization.” I modified the article in some instances and added supplemental information. I have his permission for the use of this article.

John O’Sullivan started the Changing the Game Project in 2012 after two decades as a soccer player and coach on the youth, high school, college, and professional level.  He is the author of the #1 bestselling books Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, HighPerforming Athletes, and Giving Youth Sports Back to our Kids and “Is It Wise to Specialize?”

He is a regular contributor for SoccerWire.com, and his writing has been featured in many publications including The Huffington Post and Soccer America. John is an internationally known speaker for coaches, parents, and youth sports organizations. He has spoken for TEDx, the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, IMG Academy, and at numerous other events throughout the US, Canada, and Europe.


3 Myths destroying the Youth Sports Experience for our Kids

Every year, I (John) travel throughout the US, Canada, Asia, and Europe, and give well over 100 presentations to parents and coaches. I speak to tens of thousands of people about youth sports, coaching, and athlete development. Every time I do a live event, I get asked the following question: “If you are presenting all this science-based evidence about how to raise happy, healthy, and high-performing athletes, why don’t most coaches, clubs, schools and parents follow these protocols? Why do I see the exact opposite happening?”

What a great question!

So many parents I meet are extremely frustrated these days because youth sports has changed so much since their childhood. There are no longer seasons as before – just yearlong commitments for kids. The costs and travel distances have gone through the roof. And the pressure on parents to keep up with the Jones’s has become astronomical.

Many parents are simply trying to sort out the myths and facts of athlete development. They are told what to do by other parents and coaches if they want their children to have success in sports. Yet, the path that so many children are following, and in many cases are forced to follow, is not the best path to developing as an athlete, nor as a human being.

  • In fact, their chosen path does just the opposite.
  • It leads to high rates of injuries and burnout. At the time this article was written the statistic was 70% (the figure O’Sullivan quoted): however, the percentage is now estimated at 73% and set to continue until age 17. According to O’Sullivan, it leads to a variety of psychological issues by attaching one’s identity to sports success.
  • It robs children of their childhood.
  • It turns youth sports into big business that ties advancement to financial means (the haves vs. the have not’s) instead of ability (the can do’s vs. the can’t do’s).
  • It professionalizes and “adultifies” youth sports by taking the emphasis off of enjoyment, development, and play. In other words, O’Sullivan is saying young athletes are treated like ‘miniature adults’ and trained like mature and professional athletes.

Sadly, a lot of misinformation exists and a lot of ignorance of the facts. In my opinion, this is driven by three pervasive youth sports myths.

The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic,” said the late John F. Kennedy. These three myths are incredibly persistent, very persuasive, and most troubling, they are damaging the very people they are intended to develop: our young athletes.

Myth #1 “The Tiger Woods/10,000 Hour Myth:” Your child must specialize as early as possible if he or she wants to play college or pro sports.

We have all heard misinformation from a coach or parent telling the child he/she needs 10,000 hours of deliberate practice as soon as possible. I have written about specialization many times and yet every time I present these statistics people are skeptical because this myth is so pervasive and convincing.

The problem is that it ignores many components of athletic development beyond practice that determine athletic performance, namely genetics, coaching, enjoyment, and intrinsic motivation. Therefore the question should be: Is it wise to specialize?


Book Cover Shot: Is it Wise to Specialize?









John O’Sullivan

Founder, Changing the Game Project

Click Here to Watch my TED Talk


Except for female gymnastics, figure skating, and diving, there are no definitive studies that directly tie early specialization to a greater chance of long-term, high-level success. The number of Professional athletes and top coaches that tie high-level success to an early multi-sport background is very high (Refer to USOC Report: The formula for developing Elite athletes. TJ. Buchanan, December 11, 2014)

This does not mean top players did not play a lot of hockey, soccer, or basketball, just that they did other things as well, and started to put dedicated training hours in their middle teenage years.

There are many studies linking early specialization to higher injury rates, higher burnout and dropout rates, as well as psychological and identity issues (Refer to: Dr. James Andrew: Any Given Monday: Sports Injuries and How to Prevent Them for Athletes, Parents, and Coaches – Based on My Life in Sports Medicine. Available on Amazon.com). High-level sport performance experts such as Tony Strudwick from Manchester United FC, football coaches such as Urban Meyer, and others stress the importance of multi-sport backgrounds to develop overall athleticism, decrease injury rates, and increase internal motivation.

Talent development programs in professional and college sports are no longer looking at simply at the level an athlete plays at, but what got him/her there. They don’t want a ‘finished product’ because early specialists are often at their peak of development, while multi-sport athletes have a bigger upside. Given the choice, they want upside over current performance.

In other words, instead of Tiger Woods, raise a Steve Nash or a Jordan Spieth.


Myth #2 – “The 9 Year Old National Champion Myth:” We need to win as soon as possible, as often as possible, travel as far as we need to get games, and only pick and play the kids who help us do that.

Winning is not bad; it’s not some ‘evil thing’ to be avoided at all costs. Quite the contrary! Kids like winning. They understand they need to try and score, and prevent the other team from scoring. They understand they need to try their best. What they do not understand is how winning could be more important than simply being out there playing. What they don’t understand is how winning could be more important than following the rules. And what they will never understand, especially prior to high school age, is that the result of this game is more important than getting the opportunity to play.

In my travels, every time I mention this, the naysayers jump on me and say, “He is the non-competition guy.” Wrong! I love competitive sports, and I hate participation trophies. I have coached competitive athletes my whole life, many of whom went on the become college and pro players. This myth does not produce better, more competitive athletes. It turns youth sports to an outcome-focused enterprise and puts way too much pressure to not make mistakes and try new things on young athletes trying to learn a sport. It produces ‘bitter’ athletes who quit and excludes far too many potentially top performers because of birth month and developmental age.

The downward creep of select teams is pervasive, and again, quite convincing at first glance. It’s not difficult to find communities that make ‘cuts’, pick A and B teams, and start traveling long distances to “find competition” at ages as young as 6 and 7 years old. If I get the best players, exclude others, coach them, and only play them in outcome-focused events against other top players they will develop faster, right? How could this be bad?

It’s wrong because if you are all about winning and ‘cuts’ prior to puberty, you are selecting the kids who are very likely born within 3-4 months of your calendar cut-off for your age group and are physically advanced compared to their peers. You are potentially cutting the top player at age 18 because he/she is young, and has not yet physically matured. You are selecting early maturing kids, not identifying talent. You are focusing on outcomes, not the process of getting better.

The things that often allow kids to win at young ages (height, speed, strength) won’t serve them in later years unless they also develop technique, tactics, and the ability to think for themselves. These are three things that often “go out the window in the win at all cost” youth sports.

Prior to age 12 is a time for a kid to sample many sports, not be forced into choosing one. It is a time to develop as many players as possible, not a select few. It’s a time to make mistakes in a learning environment, not only to focus on winning in an outcome driven environment. Kids must learn to love the game, play for fun, own the experience, and develop the intrinsic motivation to improve. That is the path to long-term success.

When winning is the priority prior to high school, then you are choosing short-term success over long-term development. This is not to say that you cannot properly develop players and win at the same time, but – given the choice – if you are truly concerned about your athletes’ long-term sporting future, then choose development.


Myth #3 – “Youth Sports is an Investment in a Scholarship:” If my kid specializes, gets on the winning team as early as possible, and I invest in long-distance travel, private lessons, and the best gear, I will recoup this investment when college rolls around.

Youth sport is an investment in many things, such as character development, athletic improvement, and becoming a healthy, well-rounded human being. It is not, however, an investment in a future scholarship.

Sporting goods companies, beverage makers, and some professional coaches looking to make a few ‘extra bucks’ have perpetuated this myth. A look at the numbers demonstrates that scholarships and pro contracts are reserved for an elite few athletes whose time, effort, and dedication, combined with their talent and a good dose of luck, led them to the higher ground. Less than 3% of all high school athletes play their sport in college. Only 1 in 10,000 high school athletes get a partial athletic scholarship. The average award is $11,000 per year. Yet, a huge number of parents THINK their kid is going to get a sports scholarship.

For the majority of athletes, there is no scholarship,- at least on the playing field. Academic scholarship dollars far outweigh sports aid. Sports are not a financial investment. I am not saying that your child should not aspire to get one or to play at the next level, but having a goal of excellence in sport is far better than having a goal of “get a scholarship.” Finally, if your child is only playing for a scholarship, and not for the love of the sport, it will be very difficult to make it through the ‘grind’ of college athletics (Refer to: Think athletic scholarships are a ‘holy grail’? Think again. For many young athletes and their families, the dream of playing college sports is very different from the reality.

These three myths are very convincing at first glance, very persuasive to many parents who want only the best for their kid, and very unrealistic. Sadly, in far too many communities they have become the status quo. It is very difficult to convince people that this path is less likely to help your child become a better athlete, and far less likely to help him or her develop as a human being. These three myths are killing youth sports, damaging our kids, and making athletics a toxic environment for far too many children.

The best way to help your child succeed is not only to recognize the common mythology surrounding youth sports but also to overcome it by sharing this message with others who think like you do.

Let’s overcome these myths!

Let’s put the play back in playing youth sports!

Let’s change the game, and make it a far better one!

That is within our reach. You can do your part simply by sharing this right now!









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