Participating in organized youth sports offers many potential benefits for children including physical activity, building self-esteem, leadership and organizational skills. On the flip side, as a parent I’ve often found the whole scene to be quite stressful at times. The shuffling and herding of children from practices and games, the year-round schedule of some sports and the nagging feeling that everyone is just over scheduled. As a pediatrician I’ve often seen young athletes with recurrent concussions and families that find it difficult to keep up with the demands of their children’s sports schedules.
In his book, Changing the Game, John O’Sullivan writes passionately about helping parents and coaches create more positive and rewarding experiences for kids participating in youth sports. Sadly, he states that more than 70% of young athletes drop out of organized sports before reaching high school, largely because kids lose their enthusiasm to participate and it no longer is fun. The corporatization of youth sports and the myth that sports will provide scholarship opportunities or entry into elite universities has created a culture of sports where kids are being pushed to “be on the travel teams by age 7, have a private coach by 8, and be committed to a single sport by age 10”. In addition to providing a summary of the state of youth sports and outlining a framework for athlete education and development, his book provides action steps to help parents make positive changes in their child’s athletic experiences. I spoke with him recently about his book and the role of parents in helping their children successfully navigate the world of youth sports.
You outline this very nicely in your book but could you briefly describe the best way for parents to introduce their kids to sports?
Early on, it’s important to introduce our kids to the ABCs – agility, balance and co-ordination as soon as possible. That doesn’t mean signing them up for soccer at 1½ years of age but rather spending time with them at the playground and teaching them how to run and jump. There’s a myth out there that kids are either born athletes or they’re not. But agility, balance and co-ordination are learned. Some kids pick them up quickly and others take more time. It’s just like saying if your 5 year old was struggling with reading – you wouldn’t say “let’s just forget about reading and move on” you’d say that reading is an important life skill. So if your 5 year old is getting the athletic movements down, enroll them in tumbling, martial arts or something where they are learning the basic movements or just kick a soccer ball around with them. As kids are progressing onto team sports, it’s important to keep them in a good learning environment with little competitive pressure for as long as possible.
Speaking of low competitive pressure and not making early participation about keeping score or winning, what do you do when the kids are actually the ones that are keeping score?
It’s fine if the kids keep score because the thing about 6 or 7 year olds is that one minute after that game, the only thing they care about is what the snack is. It’s usually the parents that are really caught up in the fact that “we lost 6-0”. Keeping score isn’t intrinsically good or bad; it’s just important to know what the purpose of keeping that score is. If we want to make sports enjoyable for as many children as possible and teach them athletic skills, then cutting kids, making all-star teams and emphasizing winning at these early ages doesn’t make any sense. In fact if you look at all-star teams at these early ages, it has more to do with what calendar month the kids are born in rather than actual skill level. It’s ends up being more about who is older because at those young ages, a few months make a big difference.
So how do parents decide when, if at all, their kids should specialize in a particular sport?
It’s important for parents to determine what the values and goal of any program are for their child. Playing travel soccer at 9 or 10 isn’t a bad thing; it’s just important to recognize it for what it is and try to maintain some balance. So, maybe play travel soccer in the fall and then rec basketball in the winter and either take some time off or make time for other things. It’s also important to recognize that while parents may try to avoid having their child be a single sport specialist that they often become a “multi-sport specialist” where they are playing multiple travel sports at the same time. In a way we’ve lost that middle ground where a multi-sport athlete can find a good level of play; everyone gets funneled into “the rec league that doesn’t care” or the ultra competitive teams. We end up losing a lot of athletes.
What if the push for early specialization comes from your child? Should you allow early specialization or try to “hold them back”?
When your child is the one that’s really driving it, then it’s ok to follow their lead but with the caveat that parents need to find a balanced approach that provides adequate rest and time for other interests.
There is already an existing infrastructure existing in youth sports that prevents kids from being able to participate in organized sports at the high school level if they haven’t specialized early. How do parents navigate around the current system so that their children are still having fun without limiting future participation opportunities?
Going to a high school with 3000 vs. 1000 kids, there’s a big difference in terms of the level of competition for sports. Having said that, regardless of your situation, it doesn’t change the science of how to best develop an athlete. From a physician’s perspective, the science says DO NOT specialize early unless you are a female gymnast or figure skater because you are very likely to get injured and suffer overuse injuries. From a psychologist’s perspective, the science says that early specialization will more likely lead to burnout and maladaptive behaviors. From an athlete development viewpoint, playing multiple sports at young ages develops better all-around athleticism, which in the end usually trumps early specialization. So, you’re better off having a child who plays lots of sports, finds the one that’s the best fit and then during the middle school / high school years, putting a lot into that sport.
As parents, how do we prepare our kids so that they are able to reach whatever goals they set for themselves (like being on the varsity tennis team) without overcommitting them and ourselves?
The kids who are going to make it at the high school level are very likely going to be the best athletes. So despite playing year round baseball from age 9, if your kid is not a great athlete, it’s unlikely they will make the varsity baseball team. You cannot get around that.
So how do we capture those kids back into the world of sports? So many opportunities to play sports are lost by the time kids reach high school. If a parent has a child who enjoys sports but doesn’t make the high school team, how can they encourage their child to continue to be involved?
My personal thinking has been changing on this and it’s been influenced a lot by a book called Spark by Harvard psychologist, John Ratey. He talks about the influence of exercise on brain and learning. For the vast majority of kids, by the time they have finished high school, their physical fitness pursuits will be an individual pursuit. They will be a cyclist, a runner or a swimmer and they are pretty much done with team sports. So if you have a child that is funneled off a team by 13 or 14, have them run cross-country, do track or swim. These are the individual sports they will likely pursue when they are older, so why not give them a good basis to start from?
That’s a great point. Is there a role for our school’s physical education programs to take a lead with this sort of thing and encourage kids to continue to stay active even if they are no longer on a team?
I would encourage everyone to look at the PBS special on the Naperville School District in Illinois. They changed their whole focus in their school district away from team sports to individual sports. They got heart rate monitors, treadmills and climbing walls. The obesity rate in the Naperville School District is 3%. It’s unbelievable what they have done. There’s been some criticism that it’s a wealthy school district and that it’s not reproducible but that program has been replicated in non-wealthy districts. Additionally, when they’ve done this, academic performance has actually gone up. Another problem is with the grading system for gym. Of course all of the elite athletes are going to get the best grades. One of the things that came from Naperville was looking at heart rate monitors to grade based on individual effort. So that if you have a fourteen year old girl who seems not be running that fast and might get a C grade – if you look at her heart rate and see that her heart rate is actually at 90 bpm, you can see that she’s really giving all her effort and you can give her a grade based on her effort. It’s pretty powerful – you change the message you give that fourteen-year-old girl from “you’re the slowest runner in the class” to “you are really working hard” and change her perception of herself as an athlete.
In your book you talk about how parents are “chasing the scholarship myth” and often have unrealistic expectations that lead them to push their kids to specialize early with the hope of acquiring a college scholarship. Do you think parents are buying into that myth?
I’ve seen surveys where 30-50% of parents think that their kid is going to get a scholarship. In reality, the numbers are 1-2% or even less. I think there is a lot misunderstanding around the prevalence of athletic scholarships out there, especially when you consider the fact that most schools, such as Division 3 and Ivy League schools, don’t even offer athletic scholarships.
Here’s a reader question: how do you handle all the “drama” on kid’s sports team — as in parents complaining, everyone wanting their kid to be the star, all the “fun” things that go along with being a part of a competitive sport”?
My best advice is to begin with the end in mind. What do you want sports to mean in your kid’s life? If you want sports to be something that teaches your child to work hard, to be confident, to have integrity, work well with others, to be a leader – as long as you keep your eye on the prize I think things like the politics and the drama — you just work past them. Becoming an athlete is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. So every experience is a teachable moment and if you’re on a team with a lot of drama, you need to make the decision of is this the best group to continue on with. If the answer is no, then find a group with less drama. Or, better yet, be an agent of change within your group and introduce my book or the work of groups like positive coaching alliance and work to change the environment on the team because the drama may serve the parents but it doesn’t serve the kids.
How are you working to spread your messages about youth sports?
I founded this organization called the Changing The Game Project in 2012 to get the message out and the book was just a part of it. I travel and speak at schools, clubs and conferences to get the message out about how do we create a player first environment in youth sports? Because when we do and we serve the needs, values and priorities of our kids, that’s when our kids not only stick with it and enjoy it but that is actually the path to raising elite athletes. I have a blog at changingthegameproject.com that is growing everyday with over 2 million views. So it’s a message that is really growing and resonating with parents and coaches.
What’s your final take home message for parents?
Always come back to this: if I were the one playing, what would I like in this situation? How would I like to be coached? How would I like to be cheered for? How would I like to be supported? If you’re ever in doubt of the answer, ask your son or ask your daughter what they want from you and help them find situations to allow them to get what they want from sports.