Outside of work, I spend many hours coaching my kids and other parents’ kids in school and community sports. There is a lively debate right now in the youth sports community about the value of focusing exclusively on a single sport from a young age. I wrote on the topic in a 2012 post on the Multi-Sport High School Athlete, and in 2013 on Being a Sports Parent Today. Part of what really draws me to this challenge in youth sports are the parallels and similar debates in education.
I find the conversation around sports and whether we should be keeping score and ranking players and teams from youth, akin to the conversation around the purpose and appearance of elementary school report cards. Letter grades are very much like keeping score; those who argue for them remind us of the competitive nature of the world we live in and the need to let kids know where they stand, with those opposed contending the real competition is with oneself, learning and improving skills and the relative comparison to others is really secondary.
I also find the challenges for new providers in the youth sports game very similar to what has happened and is happening in education. A generation ago it was the local community sports associations who were organizing youth sports. If you wanted to play hockey, soccer or basketball there was really only one option available. Now, there are dozens – traditional community providers sharing the stage with other non-profit organizations, for-profit enterprises, as well as a series of new sport providers in as many sports capacities. Similarly, in education we see public education challenged by independent schools for market share, and even less traditional options for learning like for-profit tutoring companies and completely virtual options like the Kahn Academy.
Youth sports, like learning options for young people, is in a time of transition – and it is part of what makes it an exciting time.
With that as a backdrop, here are my recent comments I shared for an article by Don Fennell, Sports Editor for the Richmond Review, Year-round sports mode: top athletes, coaches share their thoughts. I have also included the comments of my wife and oldest daughter on the topic from the article because the thoughts are really ‘all in the family’.
The shifts happening in youth sports are far more complex than just being good or bad, says educator Chris Kennedy, who is also a former president of the B.C. High School Boys’ Basketball Association.
“With the opportunity to go year-round, we have seen the traditional season disappear for almost all sports,” he says. “And there are some real concerns. There is a lot of research that early specialization leads to fatigue and burnout and overuse injuries. It also seems to serve the adults more than the kids. Kids are looking to have fun and often it is the adults’ competitiveness that is driving the decisions their kids make. There is also research that suggests adults who specialized in one sport growing up have higher rate of adult physical inactivity.”
Kennedy says the related debate with increased early specialization is whether sports should be more or less “score-focused” at younger ages. He thinks youth soccer and basketball have it right: de-emphasize scoring at younger ages and focus on development.
“This doesn’t mean we don’t want kids to be competitive, but do we need to keep score and have a focus on winning and losing all the time?,” he asks. “I like the race to nowhere metaphor and how it applies to youth sports. Parents are killing themselves to get their kids to so-called elite training that is getting in the way of being a kid and what is really the goal.”
Kennedy’s wife, Stephanie, is equally passionate about the topic. She has always believed that kids should be exposed to and participate in as many different sports as possible while they are young. And for a variety of reasons.
“I know through my own four children that all kids have their own structural make-up, both physically and mentally, and that different sports may cater to these differences,” she says. “I truly believe there is a sport for all kids, but it may take some effort and time to find out what that is. And in today’s age of childhood obesity, low activity levels, access to electronics and the resulting de-socialization of youth, sport can play a key role in reversing these trends.”
Stephanie, who runs Panther Cheer Athletics, is also adamant that kids participating in as many sports as possible when they’re young aids their physical development. This doesn’t mean, she says, they must do multiple sports at the same time, but within a calendar year should shift from one activity to another.
“This allows children’s young bodies, which are often growing and changing so rapidly, to adapt and hopefully grow stronger with minimal injuries,” she says. “I know from personal experience as a provincial level gymnast that I enjoyed the opportunity to play intramural sports (such as volleyball, basketball and soccer) in high school but began to resent the fact I wasn’t able to participate in these in any large way as gymnastics took most of my time. It also alienated me from my peers who played more conventional team sports and were members of high school teams. “
The eldest of the couple’s four children, Elizabeth, 12, thinks those who focus on one sport may quickly tire of it, burn out and then have no other alternatives.
“It is also more likely you will be injured because you are using the same body parts over and over,” she says. “(Alternately), if you play a lot of sports you have the chance to meet a far more diverse group of people and learn a diverse group of skills.”
Elizabeth says unfortunately sports out of the mainstream don’t get enough exposure and because kids don’t know about them “they may never try a sport they could be really good at or have a passion for.”
“Coaches in some sports are also organizing so many practices (young athletes) don’t have time to try other sports,” she adds. “I think there will be many more overuse injuries and once their career in that sport is over they won’t know what to do because they will feel it is too late to try a new sport.”
The entire article is worth a read here. It is interesting that there is general consensus from all those interviewed of the value of young people playing a range of sports. So, I am left wondering, if we all believe this to be the right approach why then is this topic such an issue? I think we may know it to be right on the theoretical level, but in the heat of “keeping of with the Joneses” we have trouble letting our actions reflect this approach.