The Professionalization of Youth Sports


A few things to know about me:

I love sports.

I love competition.

I love winning.

I hate the direction of youth sports.

Why?  Because more and more youth sports are being treated in the same manner as professional sports.

In professional sports, the athlete is a paid (usually a very high paid) adult who is expected to perform consistently at an elite level.  The objective is to win.  The best players get the most time, and the lesser players sit in reserve.  While skill development and individual achievement are nice things (think 6th Man Award, scoring titles and Most Valuable Player), the goal is quite obvious: win a championship.

In youth sports, on the other hand, the athlete is a child who pays tuition and is expected to perform like a child who is developing skills.  The objectives are to learn the game, techniques and good habits as well as the character developing lessons that sports brings while enjoying the process.  All of the kids, regardless of natural ability or skill development, are entitled to equal playing time and coach’s attention.  They are students of the game.  So, while winning is a nice thing, it is far more important to “play the game” and in order to learn and have fun.

My suspicion is most sane adults would agree with the differentiation between professional and youth sports.  Yet, why so often do our actions toward kids in youth sports match our expectations for professional athletes?

Did you win?  What was the score?  What place did you get?   Did you make the All-Star team?  Are you trying for a scholarship?  The Olympics?  These are the questions that many well-meaning adults ask kids playing sports.

And, it extends beyond sports.  Audience members who expect Broadway caliber productions from elementary school kids trash youth theater productions.  In school, adolescents whose brains are growing like crazy are given course loads and expectations for perfection once reserved for Ph.D. candidates or medical doctors.  Kids as young as 4th and 5th grade are worried about college.  Not daydreaming or wondering, actually worrying.

So this is not just a sports problem, it is a society problem.

Children are not miniature adults.  Taking systems designed for adults and simply shrinking them down to apply to children is not healthy for their development.  Kids need time, space and support to learn, make mistakes and overcome failure.  The expectation of achievement over the cherishing of the process robs kids of the purpose of childhood: to get ready to be (as opposed to being miniature) adults.

Instead focus on questions like: Did you have fun?  What part did you enjoy the most?  Are you going to try anything differently next time?  How you will practice this week?  Did you say thank you to your coach?

Or even better: refrain from questions entirely.  Smile at your child, tell them you are proud of their efforts and let them know how much you enjoy watching them play.