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May 03

The Disheartening State of Modern-day Youth Sports

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Destroying the Youth Sports Experience for Our Children

Are youth sports very different than when you were growing up? As a parent, do you feel athletes are being asked to do more and more at a very young age? Should children play multiple sports, or select a single sport and go for it? How about the role of effective coaching and parental leadership in youth sports? Are your children driven by the “professional” versus the developmental model (top down vs. bottom up model) – pushing short-term success vs. long-term involvement?

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Issues existing in youth sports that parents are often unaware of:

  1. The facts of early sport specialization
  2. The path that most athletes have taken to become professional and elite athletes, and the path that gives children the best chance of optimal performance
  3. How to ensure that sports are physically, psychologically and socially beneficial to our children?
  4. The fact that many coaches and organizations don’t know that their success-driven approach can significantly affect a child’s sports experience
  5. How to approach coaches and organizations that aren’t practicing the best path of athlete development

April Tip of the Month focuses on “Effective Coaching and Leadership.” I am relating it to youth sports. We need to address what is happening to the leadership concept we teach in theory but then is not practiced in reality. Youth sports have become a distorted societal obsession to imitate the professional model instead of grasping the reality that children are not “miniature adults!” Where and what exactly is the role of coaches, club organizers, and administrators pursuing early athletic success, and risking potential burnout and/or dropout at an early age? In addition, increasing violence among parents at various sporting events, as well as, unethical behaviour among athletes; both of which often is not dealt with effectively, especially in team sports.

Some examples:

  1. Parents verbally and physically abuse a 16-year old hockey referee in Canada
  2. Opposing team parents fight in the stands in a hockey game
  3. List of banned parents posted on the entrance gate to a soccer stadium in Oregon
  4. Father pushing a stroke judge into the water in a swim meet, upset over his daughter’s disqualification
  5. Hazing practices and bullying among team sport players, coach ignoring the behaviour  

And on and on it goes!

John O’Sullivan is the Founder and CEO of “Changing the Game” which he began in 2012 after two decades as a soccer player, and coach of youth club, as well as, coaching high school, college, and professional players. He is the author of the #1 bestselling books Changing the Game: The Parent’s Guide to Raising Happy, High-Performing Athletes, and Giving Youth Sports Back to our Kids, and Is It Wise to Specialize? His work has been featured in The Huffington Post, CNN, The Outside Magazine, ESPN TV, Soccer America, and numerous other publications. He is an internationally known speaker for coaches, parents, and youth sports organizations. He has presented at the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, US Lacrosse, IMG Academy, and numerous other events throughout the USA, Canada, Asia, and Europe.

With permission granted, I am using his post to discuss the issue. I have added personal reflections.

When O’Sullivan travels throughout the US, Canada, Asia, and Europe to speak about youth sports, coaching, and athlete development, he frequently gets asked:

…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 you see the exact opposite happening?…

John meets many parents who are extremely frustrated these days because youth sports have changed so drastically. There are no longer seasonal sports rather year-long commitments. Costs and travel distances have “gone through the roof.” The pressure on parents to keep up with the Joneses has become astronomical, and many are simply trying to sort out the 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 follow – or in many cases are forced to follow – is not the best one to develop as an athlete or as a human being. In fact, the opposite is happening, namely a high rate of injuries and burnout. According to researchers an estimated 73% of children quit youth sports by the age of 13. It leads to a variety of psychological issues by attaching one’s identity to sport success. It robs children of their childhood as it turns youth sports into big business that ties advancement to financial means (have vs. have nots) instead of ability (can do’s vs. can’t do’s). The emphasis should be enjoyment, development, and play instead we try to create “professional” or “miniature adult” athletes.

A lot of misinformation and ignorance of facts circulates in youth sports, driven by three pervasive youth sports myths according to O’Sullivan. What is most troubling is they are damaging the very people they are intended to develop, our young athletes.

“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 US President John F. Kennedy.

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 all have heard misinformation from a coach or parent telling your child he/she needs 10,000 hours of deliberate practice as soon as possible. O’Sullivan has written about “early specialization” many times. Yet, despite statistics, people have misgivings because the myth is so pervasive and convincing. The problem is… it ignores many components of athletic development beyond practice that determine athletic performance, namely genetics, coaching, enjoyment, and intrinsic motivation. Except for female gymnastics, figure skating, and diving, no definitive studies directly tie early specialization to a greater chance of long-term, and high-level success. The number of “Pro athletes,” Olympians, and top coaches that link high-level success to an early, multi-sport background, however, is very high. This does not mean top players did not compete or play a lot of hockey, or soccer, or basketball; they did other sport activities as well, and started putting in their dedicated training hours in their middle teenage years.

As mentioned earlier, many research studies associate early specialization with higher injury, burnout, and dropout rates as well as psychological and identity issues. High-level sport performance experts such as Tony Strudwick from Manchester United FC, and football coaches such as Urban Meyer, and others stress the importance of a multi-sport backgrounds to develop overall athleticism to decrease injuries, and increase internal motivation. Talent development programs in professional and college sports are no longer looking simply about what level athletes play but what got them 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.

Many boys and girls grow up dreaming of playing sports in college and beyond but the reality is different. Here are recent statistics:

  1. Of nearly 8 million students currently participating in high school athletics in the United States, only 495,000 will compete at NCAA schools. Of that group, only a fraction will realize their goal of becoming a professional or Olympic athlete.
  2. Of the 16,346 draft eligible NCAA football players: 255 were drafted into the NFL.
  3. Out of 7,880 draft eligible NCAA baseball players: 775 were drafted by MLB.
  4. From the 940 draft eligible NCAA men’s ice hockey players: 65 were drafted into the NHL.
  5. Of the 3,674 draft eligible NCAA women’s basketball players: 32 were drafted into the WNBA.

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 – 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 also understand that they need to try to perform their best. What they do not understand is that winning is not more important than simply competing or playing, nor more important than following the rules. They will never understand, especially prior to high school age, that the result of winning a competition or a particular game is not more important than getting the opportunity to compete or play. Every time O’Sullivan mentions these aspects the “naysayers” jump on him and label him as a “non-competition guy. On the contrary! O’Sullivan loves competitive sports, and hates participation trophies. He has coached competitive athletes his whole life, and many became College/University and Pro players. Winning 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, not trying new things on young athletes learning a given sport. Instead, the pressure to perform produces bitter athletes who quit, and it excludes far too many potentially top performers because of birth month and developmental age. The downward slide of selecting teams based on performance is pervasive, and again, quite convincing at first glance. It’s not difficult to find communities that make cuts, “cherry-pick” A and B teams, and start travelling long distances to find competition at ages as young as 6 and 7 years old. Selecting the best players, excluding others, coaching them, and only playing them in outcome-focused events against other top players develops them faster, right? How could this be bad? So the argument goes! It is, however, a mistake because it is “all about winning and cutting” athletes prior to puberty. Coaches are selecting those, who are very likely born within 3-4 months of the calendar cut-off for the respective age group, and are therefore more physically advanced compared to their peers. Coaches may potentially “cut” a top player at age 18 because they are not physically mature because the focus is on maturing athletes versus identifying those with talent because the emphasis is on outcome rather than improvement.

The attributes that often allow children 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, three aspects that often “go out the window in win at all costs” youth sports. Prior to age 12 is a time for a child 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 is a time to make mistakes in a learning environment, not only focusing on winning in an outcome-driven environment (x). Children have to learn to “love their sport,” compete or 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 coaches and parents are choosing short-term success over long-term development. This is not to say that one cannot properly develop competitors and players, and win at the same time, but if given the choice, if one is truly concerned about the athlete’s long-term sporting future, then development should be the chosen path.

Myth #3: “Youth Sports is an Investment in a Scholarship”

If my child 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 in College enrollment.

Youth sports are an investment in many aspects such as character development, athletic improvement, and becoming a healthy, well-rounded human being. It is not, however, an investment for future scholarships. Sporting goods companies, beverage makers, and some professional coaches want to earn extra dollars, which has perpetuated this present myth. A low number of scholarships and Pro contracts are given to a select group of elite athletes whose time, effort, and dedication, combined with their talent, and a “good dose of luck”, has led them to the higher path. Less than 3% of all high school athletes play their sport in College. Only one in 10,000 high school athletes is selected to receive a partial athletic scholarship while the average award is $11,000 per year. Yet, a huge number of parents actually believe their child is going be granted such scholarships. There is no scholarship to be had for the majority of athletes, at least on the playing field. Playing sports is not a financial investment! Academic scholarship dollars far outweigh sports aid. O’Sullivan is not saying that parents and athletes should not aspire to play at the next level, but having a goal of excellence in sport is far better than having a goal of “getting a scholarship.” Finally, if the child is only playing for a scholarship, and not love of the sport, it will be very difficult to make it through the “grind” of College or University athletics!

The three myths are very convincing at first glance, and very persuasive to many parents, who want only the best for their children, but they are also very unrealistic. They have become the status quo in far too many communities. It is very difficult to persuade people that such a path is less likely to help their children to become better athletes, and far less likely to help them develop as human beings. These myths are destroying youth sports, damaging our children, and making youth athletics a toxic environment. The best way to help your children succeed is not only to recognize the common mythology surrounding youth sports but also to 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!

Contact: John@ChangingTheGameProject.com

References:

O’Sullivan, J. (2014). Is It Wise to Specialize?: What Every Parent Needs to Know About Early Sports Specialization and its Effect Upon Your Child’s Athletic Performance Amazon Digital Services LLC.

O’Sullivan, J. (2015, posted July 25). 3 Myths that are destroying the youth sports experience for our kids. Changing the Game Project. Published in “Problems in youth sports, relative age effect, specialization.” Retrieved April 10, 2019, from https://changingthegameproject.com/3-myths-that-are-destroying-the-youth-sports-experience-for-our-kids/

O’Sullivan, (J). Changing the game project. Join the changing the game movement today. https://changingthegameproject.com/

Probability of competing beyond high school (report). (Retrieved April 14, 2019) from http://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/research/probability-competing-beyond-high-school

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