“Youth sports is out of control! We need to go back to the good ole days when everyone played for fun in their neighborhoods!”
The old days were good, but they’re gone. Now, issues of safety, distance, parental work schedules, and availability of playing areas make neighborhood games something of a relic. And, I’m sorry. Fantasy soccer teams and X-Box games are no substitutes. Today’s answer to backyard games is organized youth sports.
But what about “Youth sports is out of control!” This weekend I spoke to a room full of coaches who are committed to bringing youth soccer back under control. The coaches who attended the Virginia Youth Soccer Association conference care about kids and want to help them be fitter, stronger and healthier so they discover what they’re made of on the athletic field.
If you’re one of those coaches~ who want the sports kids are playing now to stick with them for a lifetime~ thank you. Fit2finish is committed to supporting your efforts and helping you be the best for those kids.
Check out other posts on this site for sport health and fitness info and stay tuned for regular posts on fitness, stretching, warm ups, nutrition -all the things coaches have questions about.
Fit2finish is happy to host the conversation about health and fitness, so let’s have your comments and ideas. Go ahead, give it your best shot!
Wendy… I absolutely agree with you on the importance of coaching behavior to a healthy youth sports experience. And instead of blaming organized sports for promoting poor behavior, a better prescription is to deal with those instances where youth coaches lose their way.
Now regarding your statement “Today’s answer to backyard games is organized youth sports.” (Which I believe was formerly “Youth sports today IS organized sports.”), I couldn’t disagree more!
As you accurately point out, our society has changed and some of these changes such as two paycheck families have diminished the opportunity for children to play neighborhood pickup games. But other factors are more ones of choice, and possibly ignorance. For instance, parental concern over safety may be more rooted in a fear-based psychology driven by our 24 hour news cycle rather than any widespread increase in deviant behavior. Over-scheduling a child’s activities to the point where there is no room for self-directed play is another.
While some sports (soccer, baseball) may now be played mostly within the province of organized sports, others such as basketball still enjoy a strong self-directed play component. Not only are there many portable hoops evident on suburban streets, but kids congregate at community settings such as the YMCA to engage in 2-on-2, 3-on-3 and full court pickup games. I personally witness this at my local Y where dozens of kids of all ages regularly show up after school and weekends to engage in fun, self-directed pickup games.
I firmly believe that the best youth sports experience is one that embraces both self-directed play AND organized youth sports. This mix not only benefits kids when they’re young but also sets the foundation for active participation in sports as adults (when organized sports play a much lesser role).
Change does preclude a return to the “good old days.” But choices remain, and where possible, I believe parents, administrators and youth sports advocates should seek opportunities to provide a balanced youth sports experience—one that includes a strong self-directed play component.
Thanks for speaking up, Jeff. I absolutely agree with what you have said in many regards. First of all, I should have said, “organized sports are one answer to” the good ole days gone by. I do love seeing the neighborhood hoop territory full of pick up basketball. I drive by some of this where I live and I see it at the gym at lunch time.
I guess what is really at hand is who does the organizing and how? Kids lose out when parents/adults do it all the time, but younger children have few opportunities to do it themselves. Recently, on a weekend at a school blacktop near me, I saw a man with 5 or 6 young boys. They were doing “side shuffling drills” in front of the hoop. He was leading while they followed. Where was the play?
This points out a common theme: the adult approach to the game that belongs to the kids. What I have seen from some great soccer coaches is to host a ‘street soccer’ approach to practice. Get a space, bring a ball or two and some cones to define boundaries and goals, maybe some pinnies to differentiate teams and then say, “Go ahead, play.”
Kids who first come to my teams are totally confused by this. They won’t play until you give them permission and then they ask which position they should play.
So perhaps, for part of the time at least, we should make the space available, let them know the rules if they don’t yet and then be present just enough to insure safety.
By the way, Jeff, this is one reason given for why our USA basketball players lead the world in creative play and our soccer players, having been trained to do it “just so,” are trying to catch up with much of the rest of the world on creativity. The irony: they call soccer the beautiful game.
I absolutely agree that the youngest kids need adult instruction and supervision to learn the rules, be taught some fundamental skills, and organize the play. But as kids get older they naturally become more independent in their play. They watch older kids playing pickup games (in the neighborhood, park, or Y) and gradually enter into the play. They then begin to organize games themselves with kids their own age. Of course this process depends on opportunity, something which we both agree has changed over the years.
What’s also interesting is how boys differ from girls in their approach to pickup. Where boys readily engage in the process I described above, it seems that girls are more reticent to do so. I find it disappointing that so few girls show up at the local Y to play pickup. It does seem that girls, for whatever reason, need a more organized setting to play sports. But this is a whole topic onto itself…
The idea of a parent making space available, throwing out the ball, and letting kids play (and manage the games and arguments themselves) is certainly better than no self-directed play at all. It addresses the issue of safety and provides some independence for kids to play the game they way they want to. This is a good example of trying to come up with an innovative solution to promote more self-directed play in today’s world.
Wendy, I think you’re also right about the potential effect of organized-only play on creativity. One of the many benefits of pickup games is that a young athlete can more readily explore new and different techniques. For anyone who’s interested, I talk about this in my Playing Up/Playing Down post on Inside Youth Sports.
Glad to hear we’re still on the same team!!
Jeff – we are definitely still on the same team!! Rest assured.
Thanks for your thoughts and your link. I always enjoy reading these and I hope others in the conversation will. I am sure your book is power-packed. Will get that onto my kindle today.
Ironically, I think the changing times have us looking at play differently these days. It is not an end in itself, as in “just play.” (out of which we know the kids glean so much) And, as we know, when adults direct things it becomes “play like this… so that ….” Where adults seem to need outcome to drive the effort, kids need to feel free to try things out. It’s a tall order.
What do you think is the best way to help volunteer coaches learn to “just play” with the kids who have landed on their rosters?
Hi Wendy… I just got back to your website and saw your additional comment.
Depending on the amount of practice time available, youth coaches can provide some free play time before and after practices. In the leagues I coach basketball, there is very little practice time. Nevertheless, I let the kids shoot around and “play” for 5 to 10 minutes at the beginning of each practice. I’ll stick around afterwards for the same amount of time. Kids will sometimes play one-on-one against each other (all over the court) along with taking some crazy shots. Not productive, but fun. (Remember when you were young, in the gym, and didn’t want to leave??) These other activities also provide coaches with an opportunity to drop their “coach” role for a few minutes and relate to their players in a more relaxed, fun way. I also try to inject some fun during practices with scrimmages and a few shooting games such as Knock-Out. (This stuff is still coach directed.)
But here’s the thing, I don’t believe it’s the primary responsibility of “organized” sports to provide kids with the opportunity for self-directed play. In my mind, organized sports should complement free play.
As I mentioned in a prior reply, we may need to provide kids with more access to semi-supervised facilities (or other space) where they can join in on the fun in a relatively safe environment. Again, my YMCA is a perfect example of this. Kids show up, engage in pickup BBall games (full court and small games), have fun, practice, and learn on their own. I think one of the challenges is to figure out how to provide the same for other sports. I’m going to talk more about all of this in an upcoming post on my blog.
If you have any ideas on how to promote self-directed play in soccer (from the neighborhood to parks and schools), I would love to hear them.