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Posts Tagged ‘youth sports’

I have used this space a number of times over the last decade to think out loud about youth sports.  And I can reaffirm my bias upfront that sports in our schools and our community and the values they largely promote are important, and perhaps more significant than ever.

And now I see the opportunity, that the shutdown of the last three months could be the catalyst of something different to emerge.  Especially as the pandemic has reshaped the economy, ideas around travel and issues of safety – there are barriers and opportunities for sports in all of these.

There is a definite hope for sports to re-emerge soon.  In British Columbia Via Sport released it Return to Sport guidelines this past week.   In our rush to return to normal, there is an opportunity to consider if normal is really what we want.  Of course this is a conversation happening across society as items that have been closed begin to re-open.

So how might school and community youth sports come back different (and yes many of these are related)?

Cheaper

Youth sports have too often become games for the rich in recent years.  The professionalization of childhood sports has left many behind. So many families will emerge from the pandemic with less money to spend on activities for their kids.  There is an opportunity for cheaper options to emerge and be successful.  Linked to other changes like less travel and more volunteerism, and a refocus on play, growth and development and a lessening of competition, sports could be cheaper.  And likely sports requiring less equipment costs, and without heavy facility rentals (which may be more expensive because of additional cleaning costs) will be more popular.   I think sports like ultimate, track and field, soccer and baseball all might fall into this category.

More Local

We are all getting used to traveling less.  And until there is a COVID vaccine, it definitely seems like some travel restrictions will be in place.  In recent years we have become obsessed with traveling long distances for competition.  It does not seem like 4 or 5 kids from different families will be sharing hotel room anytime soon.   Rather than the top players being siphoned off to play on teams in other communities, structures could be built for intra-club and other localized competitions and these would have value and be important.  Leagues would be refocused on individual communities and playing through this would be culminating events rather than larger events with travel.

New Role for Parents

One of the first things I hear from coaches about the pandemic is that if parents are not allowed to watch – that might be a good thing.  Too often youth sports have not been about young people competing with other young people, but about parents competing with other parents through their kids.  If in the short-term youth sports become drop-off activities, parents could either 1) commit to be volunteers and assist with the program or 2) treat this as found time – workout, read a book, enjoy their own pursuits.  The lack of parents in attendance could really refocus youth sports.  We just might have more teenagers willing to be officials knowing there wouldn’t be anyone there to yell at them.

Less Game Focused

Even though we know better, far too many teams have more games than practices.  This will change as we have smaller, more localized leagues.  As we start back up with sports the focus will be on practices and no competition.  This will likely be a reset for many sports.  The practice to game ratio will be adjusted so there are far more practices to competition dates.   It will still be competitive but it will be done within an individual club set-up.

Volunteer Driven

When sports become local, we will hopefully see the return of the volunteer coach.  The volunteer coach has gone missing in recent years.  The professionalization of youth sports has happened alongside the reduction of volunteer coaches.  It is a bit of a chicken and egg scenario.  As youth coaches became paid coaches, the volunteer coaches began to disappear.  Of course, it could be argued that the volunteer coach disappeared so we moved to a paid coach model.  In cheaper, more local models hopefully the volunteer coach returns – the parent or other community member who is supported by local sports organizations to improve his / her skills and gives back through coaching.

Different Sports and Modified Sports

Some messages we keep hearing are more outdoor activities, smaller groups and less physical contact.  As Dr. Bonnie Henry has said “fewer faces, big spaces.” I am not sure what the complete list of sports are that will thrive but it is definitely different from many of the ones we have grown up with.  Might we see more beach volleyball and 3×3 basketball (which are both outdoor sports) than their more well known traditional indoor counterparts?  We may see sports with different rules that reduce physical contact.  It seems as though some of the more high profile sports will be slow to return as they are based on contact and often happen inside.

Sports meeting the interest of all youth

The time off has hopefully allowed us to reflect on purpose.  How can we make sports more inclusive of all youth?  It is a small example, but out of necessity we held a virtual track and field meet last week in West Vancouver Schools.  Every student could do all five events and be part of it – dozens of them (and their parents) shared these stories on social media.  Nobody got cut or not selected, everyone participated, there was something to celebrate for each student and it promoted health and fitness.  We need more of this.  We have an opportunity to look at school and community sports and ask questions about purpose and ensure that we really are serving our communities.

Conclusions

It would be a missed opportunity if we just raced to return youth sports to as they were before the pandemic.  And anywhere I wrote youth sports – you could really replace it with school sports.  Many of the same issues and opportunities exist.  We know sports are powerful for young people and so important at developing life skills but we also know our system we had was fine but not great.

There is a chance now to do better.

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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.

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