What’s Gone Wrong in Youth Sports? Error #1 There’s Too Much Adulting

Up or Out! That’s the model in play today, says Aspen Institute’s Tom Farrey, kicking off the 2018 Project Play Summit.

A few kids move up but most are out: dropping out because it’s not fun, selected out because they’re “not good enough” or sitting out, either because they’re 2nd or 3rd string or because they’re injured and can’t play. Clearly, there is something wrong with the way we are conducting youth sports programs today. How has something so good for us as kids become something that’s not good for so many of today’s kids?

We, the people who are organizing, running and supporting the environment that exists in today’s youth sports, are making two grave errors. In our best intentions and through what feels like our best efforts we are failing kids in two important ways.

One error is in approach and perspective due to a cultural shift that has ushered in the professionalization of coaching and the business model clubs are adopting. The other error is one of sport-science ignorance, a generalized lack of understanding of the physical nature of children and how to develop them through play. Only by taking steps to correct these errors can we hope to right what’s gone wrong and save youth sports for our children.

Let’s look at our first error. We are doing too much adulting in youth sports.

Of course, we are adults and they are children, so we are bringing our adult-selves to their fields, courts, courses, pools and other places of play. Our error is that, with us, we bring our adult approach. We bring what works for us as adults and expect it to work the same way for kids. Let’s look at the scenarios this creates.

The Boardroom Approach: We come from our places of business, our professions, trained occupations or chosen vocations and we bring what works best there to our kids’ practices and games. We apply what works in “the boardroom,” lecturing with charts, diagrams and dry-erase boards, then taking questions. “Seeing there are none”… we send them out to do what we have told them to do and we are shocked to find they don’t. We blame them for “not getting it” or “not trying hard enough” or “not executing the game plan” when the truth often is that they can’t or they simply don’t understand. This is our problem not theirs.

Overmuch about “grit”: Because nose-to-the-grindstone repetition and working longer hours than anyone else is what got us to the top in our field, we employ the same approach with kids. If we can’t win with skill we will out-work them! Training, conditioning and working out should make them into better athletes, right, so could winning be far behind? Soon, instead of recreation or healthy entertainment, sport becomes their job. And because they want to please parents, coaches, and college scouts they adopt this approach. Sports becomes their job, their way to earn a reward, and the fun is long gone. Who in the world signs up to train, condition and work-out for fun?!

Single Sport Specialization: Because focus and attention to detail, day in and day out, has moved us up the professional ladder, we think the same will be good for our kids. The moment we’re told they have potential in a sport, we get them on a team that promises year-round training and we spring for personalized training if we can afford it because, hey, you gotta get on this early if you want to be good. We can’t let them get distracted from the course we have laid out for them. But what if their interest, passion and ultimate skill set lies in another pursuit? Or what if they need a variety of perspectives to get a 360 view of how they’re meant to be their best?

In our best efforts and even through our best intentions to help kids achieve their full athletic potential, we have lost sight of the most important thing. While developing our athletes, we have forgotten we are raising our children.

Too often in today’s youth sports, instead of thriving, our kids are just surviving. And so are we.

Recently, I ran across this video, shared by Soccergrlprobs, calling it “every wall’s worst nightmare.” (warning: it’s hard to watch) In it, a player lines up to take a free kick while the team in purple forms a traditional wall. Some white jerseys insert themselves into the wall and then, at the last second, they drop to the ground as their teammate strikes the ball. The driven ball strikes one purple-clad player in the head and she collapses to the ground. Then her teammate repeats this off the rebounded ball, striking another player point blank, who crumples, too. This is unconscionable!  And clearly a set play performed by design. What is this coach thinking?!

This is every wall’s worst nightmare #SGP #doubletime

Posted by Soccergrlprobs on Tuesday, October 23, 2018

This is an egregious but telling example of what “too much adulting” can look like in youth sports today.

If I were to bend waaaay over backward to give this coach the benefit of the doubt, I’d say perhaps he or she is trying to have players execute an advanced adult-style free kick play where “same team” players insert themselves into the wall and then step away to leave openings for the free kick to slip through. It is clear that these players have neither the finesse, nor the skill, nor the technique nor (clearly) the maturity or game sense to execute this play.

“Adulting” like this can do only one thing: injure the other team. And what’s worse, from their reaction to the outcome, they seem to enjoy it. Some parents on the sidelines can be heard laughing in the video. Laughing … as it is likely these two players have just suffered traumatic brain injuries.

The best approach for adults to parent, coach or mentor young people in sport, is first to  step OUT of the adult board room and INTO the child’s play room. OUT of the adult grind into child’s play. OUT of professional specialization into amateur expression and creativity. If we cannot do this, we do not belong on the youth sports field. I believe we can, but first we must recognize what we bring with us, and train ourselves to leave work at work.

Next up: Error #2: Children are Fragile: How Youth Sports is Breaking Them

Finally: Righting What’s Wrong To Set Youth Sports UpRight.

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