It’s no secret there are significant problems in organized youth sports programs. Incidences of parents screaming at nine-year-old children over a missed basket or misplayed fly ball are commonplace. Youth league umpires and referees are regularly abused and even physically attacked. Brawls have erupted after youth league soccer matches. Obviously, something is wrong.
It’s the adults.
Youth sports programs are no longer about meeting the educational, developmental, health and recreational needs of children. They have become more about satisfying ego needs of adults. Adults have imposed their values and priorities regarding sports upon children’s games, from the organization of player drafts to the imposition of structure, organization and rules to a disproportionate emphasis on winning. Meanwhile children, more than anything, want to play sports, not to win, but to simply have fun and spend time with their friends. It is the adults who are destroying youth sports and it is time to give youth sports back to the kids.
But how will our children manage without adults supervising every aspect of their sports activities and experience?
Quite well, thank you.
Studies contrasting spontaneous youth play versus youth sport organized and run by adults indicate that children, if left to their own devices, will successfully organize, administer and manage their own games. They will choose sides and mediate disputes. They will set their own rules. In some cases, those rules may change from game to game. But they will be rules that work for them. Children will handicap their games to ensure that they are evenly matched, which makes them interesting and fun. Such organizational, mediation and interpersonal skills are valuable characteristics that children don’t truly get the opportunity to develop when adults dictate the rules and that they play the “adult”, supposedly “right” way.
A perfect example of the stark difference between “pick-up” kids’ games and adult run youth games is the common situation where there is one very superior athlete in a baseball game. In the adult organized game, the coach will have that child pitch. The child proceeds to dominate the game, striking out most of the batters he or she faces, while the children playing in the field stand like statues, or, just as likely, pick dandelions in the outfield, waiting to field a ball that most likely won’t ever be hit, let alone hit to them.
By the end of the game, many players have never touched the ball. If left to their own devices, the children in the “pick-up” game will agree amongst themselves that the dominant player either not pitch or pitch with his or her opposite arm. In basketball, the dominant player may be allowed only a limited number of shots or may be required to shoot with his or her “off” hand.
Children make adjustments in their games to ensure that the game will be interesting and fun, and thus, continue. Their purpose in getting together to play is to have fun. If the game is not fun, children will quit playing. And if enough quit, the game will end. That being the case, they must work to make the game interesting and fun so everyone will want to continue to play. Without adult enforced structure, dictates, rules and expectations, there is nothing holding the game together other than the kids wanting to play it. In short, the game would cease to exist if it were not fun. You can’t blame them as “play” is supposed to be fun. In youth leagues organized by adults, the adult imposed goal of winning and dictating that the game be played the “right” way (as defined by adults) overshadows the goal of maximizing fun and participation.
Another significant difference between these two types of games is the way in which the outcome is treated. In adult organized games, the result of the contest is recorded as a win or a loss, regardless of the closeness of the game or the performances of the individuals involved. Further, standing are kept and trophies are awarded. In the pick-up game, while the result may be discussed on the walk home, it is usually considered insignificant and quickly forgotten as children focus more on the most exciting plays and the fun they had. Clearly, children have their priorities straight regarding sports as it is the process (participation, learning and having fun) rather than the end result (winning) that is most important.
How do we restructure youth sports programs to give the games back to the kids?
In such a system, only a relatively small portion of the activities (say 25 – 30 percent) would be devoted to fundamental skill instruction. The remaining time should be turned over to the kids for them to play pick-up games…with no parental or adult involvement! Other than a safety official, adults should not be permitted to coach or instruct. And, if you want to take this concept to the next level, adults and parents wouldn’t even be allowed to watch. Get them out of the gym, field or facility. Let the kids play on their terms for themselves. The real joy of youth sports comes from playing with friends, far from the critiquing of adults. The adults should just leave the kids alone. Let them pick their own teams, make their own rules and mediate their own disputes. The only rule they should abide by is that everyone plays.
In other words, to make the games “about the kids”, activities should resemble pick-up games. Provide a safe playing environment but let them manage their own games. As a result, they will have the space and opportunity to actually develop the personal skills – organizational, conflict resolution, leadership, personal responsibility, mediation and management – that we claim that sports participation teaches. While adults may cringe at denying their children their “expert” coaching talents, the fact is, children’s interpersonal, leadership and decision-making skills will develop more if they are left to manage their own games. Without adult supervision, the games will be closer, more interesting and most important, more fun for the kids. And don’t we adults always claim that youth sports are “about the kids”? Maybe it’s time to stop paying lip service to that concept and get the adults out of youth sports. Maybe it’s time to let the kids have their games back.