Youth sports are portrayed as being an entirely positive developmental experience for kids (future adults). Sports provide kids with exercise, friendship, and a platform for learning valuable life lessons proponents tout. Youth sports may currently be one of the most socially accepted ways of helping kids develop these traits, but it’s a way that is sorely falling short in actually doing so.
The overwhelming majority of people who play soccer, football, basketball, ice hockey, baseball, softball, lacrosse, and similar sports will only do so for a few years. A few years of their life that will likely last 70, 80, 90, or more years. That’s a fact. The very successful youth players may play for as many as 10 or 12 years. Very, very few people who play these sports will play them after about age 22. Most will stop by about age 18 and many way, way before that. The large majority of kids who play youth soccer, for example, will never play for their high-school team. The won’t play past about age 13.
The established structure for these sports is an elimination structure. At the youngest ages, all kids can play just by signing up. By 8 or 9, there become “travel teams”, “select teams”, or similar. To continue to play, you must make the team. By high school, in most places, to play a sport, you must make the team. In Massachusetts, where I grew up, the average high school had about 300 students per class, about half boys and half girls. In an average year, six seniors would be on the varsity basketball team, as one example. That’s four percent of the boys in the senior class. Considering that about half of these same 150 boys were playing basketball as fifth and sixth graders, you can see that most of these kids stopped playing basketball long before they finished high school. Society paints a picture that when you drive by a busy soccer field on a Saturday morning which dozens of smiling tykes running around that we’re creating a lifetime of physical activity. It’s just not true. Most of these kids willy only play soccer for a few years. When we teach football and ice hockey and softball as forms of exercise, we are greatly shortchanging our children because we are not teaching them a form of exercise that they can enjoy for life.
These sports generally require equipment, specialized playing fields or courts, officials, and several other people who want to play at the same time as you. These sports really don’t work in the adult world. Instilling an eight-year-old with a love of playing tight end simply does not serve him well when he’s looking for a workout to do between classes in law school or something to do with his wife when he’s 52.
Have you heard the expression that “History is written by the winners”? The idea is that when you read historical accounts, particular of wars, they are written by the winners (because the losers are dead). I think the notion that sports create great friendships comes mainly from the viewpoint of the star players on championship teams. Of course, in general, being on a sports team does promote some camaraderie among teammates, but not more so than in any other group activity. And most casual observers, and sadly most parents, miss something from youth sports. They just don’t see it. Or they choose not to see it. I’ll explain.
You’ve got two great 12-year-old kids. Johnny plays shortstop for the Orioles. Mikey plays shortstop for the Cardinals. Back on Millstown Ave., they are best buddies. They both love Tom Brady and Big Papi. They’re inseparable. Until summer comes. Only one of them gets to play for the all-star team. They both want it really bad. They both practice really hard. Mikey makes the team and Johnny doesn’t. How does this make them better friends? Will they keep being friends as Mikey keeps playing into high school and Johnny stops playing baseball?
Most people miss, that in our sports-obsessed, win-at-all costs culture, kids feel a lot of pressure to excel and to make increasingly-hard-to-make teams as they age. To think that they all get along like best friends in an idyllic community while vying for increasingly rare, coveted spots on teams, spots in the starting line-up, captainship of teams, etc. is simply naïve. In fact, there’s quite a bit of brother-against-brother, sister-against-sister going on in locker rooms, hallways, and boys’ and girls’ minds while they navigate the world of youth sports.
You learn teamwork, you learn how to overcome adversity, and you learn all kinds of similar life lessons in youth sports advocates tout. Lessons that you need to learn to be a successful adult. You certainly can. But to assume that sports is the only place or the best place to learn these lessons is ignorant.
Couldn’t a kid learn teamwork and other life skills working on a project to create something with a group of classmates? Isn’t working together in a group, to prepare a big presentation, a lot more like the teamwork challenges they will face as adults in the work world? Couldn’t a kid learn teamwork in his family, say working with his siblings and parents to make a meal together. Isn’t that something she will likely do many times as an adult with his life partner or kids? Is it possible that the teamwork learned from creating and delivering a presentation, making a meal together, or doing similar activities would better teach a kid teamwork skills that she will use in adulthood than learning how to turn a double play?
What we create by teaching a love of sports to kids is not a robust crop of adults who are in great shape, have top-notch adult relationships, or have great life skills (teamwork, etc.). What we have is a nation in which over half of our members are overweight and we have increasing rates of chronic diseases. We have a 50-percent divorce rate. And life skills like teamwork? Turn on Fox News or CNN and you’ll easily see how adversarial we are as a people.
The average Tom Brady-loving 12-year-old does not grow up to be a fit adult, loving father, and leader in this community. On average, by 45, he’s fat; taking a prescription drug for cardiovascular disease, depression, anxiety, and/or erectile dysfunction; divorced; and watching the Patriots on television most weekends. That’s what youth sports primarily creates: sports fans.
Regarding exercise, perhaps we are better served to teach young people forms of exercise that they can love for a lifetime. Hiking, yoga, swimming, running, martial arts, skiing, rock climbing, cycling, mountain biking, lifting weights, and many other activities can be done for a lifetime.
Regarding friendships, and relationships as whole, I think we can do a great job of teaching our kids by modeling great relationships ourselves, not by sending them to soccer. And they have ample opportunities to enjoy friendship at school and in their neighborhoods.
Regarding life skills like teamwork and overcoming adversity, school and various extracurricular activities present challenges much more similar to the challenges of work life than the challenges of sports. Learning good passing hardly translates to being good at job interviews, public speaking, and innovating to serve others and make the world a better place.
Remember your mantra for today: NOURISHING MOVEMENT, NOURISHING FOOD, NOURISHING LIFE.