What is the Point of Youth Sports?

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, October 2011.

Youth sports are a billion dollar industry, but what is its purpose? Do we invest billions in youth sports to produce professional athletes? If developing professional athletes is the primary purpose, why are professional organizations uninvolved in the development process? The NBA, NHL, MLB and NFL spend virtually no money on youth programs, instead relying on the school system and other non-profit programs (YMCA, Parks & Recreation, AAU) to supply talented adult-aged players for professional drafts.

If the primary purpose of these programs (schools, YMCA, P&R, etc.) is not to develop professional athletes, what is the purpose? Most organizations emphasize physical fitness and sportsmanship; these are the traditional values of youth-sport organizations. As a society, we believe that playing youth sports develop values like discipline, commitment, teamwork and leadership which our society values, and we trust that these experiences provide sufficient physical activity to maintain a healthy population.

As the obesity rates climb, one could argue that youth sports are failing to fulfill its purpose. Team sports comprise a majority of many children’s physical activity, but children spent only 46.1% of their practice time in moderate-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) and only 24% of participants met the 60-minute physical activity guideline during practice (Leek et al., 2011). Furthermore, as the obesity rates demonstrate, youth sports are not retaining enough participants into adulthood, nor preparing participants for life-long physical activity.

In the immediate, if we rely on organized sports for children’s physical activity, we need to ensure a more active practice environment. In many practice situations, coaches spend too much time talking to children who are standing still rather than being active. From a physical activity standpoint, many team situations would improve if the coach created a more open-gym-like situation where the players played the game without too much coach interference. A well-structured practice will reduce the amount of time spent standing around and increase the amount of activity, whether through scrimmages or well-designed drills that eliminate lines and keep the majority of the players active at any given time. A well-organized practice should result in players engaging in MVPA for at least 50% of the practice time.

From a developmental perspective, our youth-sport activities need to increase the development of broad motor skills. In the current environment of early specialization, our focus is narrow, sport-specific motor skill development. For instance, if a child chooses to specialize in basketball, he may not develop kicking skills. I notice basketball players with no baseball or softball background who have poorly developed throwing, object-tracking and catching skills.

If we heed the NCAA statistics, less than 3% of high-school basketball players will play college basketball at any level. Therefore, these children who specialize in basketball will need to find another activity to remain physically active at some point during their teens. If a child has poorly-developed object-tracking skills, he may be inclined to avoid ultimate frisbee games with friends because of a perceived lack of motor-skill competence. Rather than transfer his youth-sport experience to a new physical-activity pursuit, he chooses not to participate and decreases his physical activity.

In addition to increasing the immediate amount of MVPA in youth practices, we need to ensure participants develop motor skill competence and perceived motor skill competence. When children join competitive teams at young ages, coaches emphasize winning, not broad-based skill development. Rather than developing the requisite skills in all players, coaches take short cuts to the win. Developing skills is hard, especially with young or novice players. It is much easier to find ways to hide a weaker player than to develop his skills, especially in a typical youth league where teams practice for only one to three hours per week.

This competitive emphasis hurts many children’s perceptions of their abilities; rather than realize that they lack maturity or need more practice because they are beginners, they feel they are not good enough. Perceived motor skill competence – one’s belief in one’s ability to perform motor tasks – is a major factor in physical activity persistence, especially as children move into their teens. Those with lower perceptions of their abilities will opt out of physical activity because they know they are not as good as their peers, they do not want to demonstrate their lack of competence, and they have limited motor skills to transfer to new activities (Stodden et al., 2008).

This is the right-field postulate. Little League coaches put their worst player in right field and hope the ball never gets hit his way. He plays two innings as mandated by Little League and gets his one at bat. Rather than work to improve his hitting, throwing and catching, the coach takes the short cut to the win and positions him where he can do the least damage. Furthermore, by putting him in a position with little activity and offering little help to improve his skills, the player’s perceptions of his abilities decrease, and he often quits.

Imagine the difference in coaching if rules stipulated that each player had to play each position. Even better, what if each coach coached youth sports with this attitude regardless of the rules? Rather than banish the worst player to the position of inactivity, the coach would have to work with the player or suffer competitively when he played more important positions. If the coach works with the player, he might improve his throwing, catching and hitting skills. More importantly, his perceptions of his abilities may improve which could lead to more persistence in the activity and more physical activity.

Elementary-school children with good object-control skills like kicking, catching and throwing are more likely to become fit adolescents (Barnett et al., 2008). These children benefit in three ways from their enhanced skill development: (1) Children with better skills are more likely to continue participating in sports because they make the competitive teams; (2) These children have a higher perception of their abilities, so they are more likely to try out for teams and engage in new activities; and (3) If and when they fall out of the competitive stream in one sport, they have more developed skills to transfer to a new sport or activity.

I played multiple sports with some degree of success as a child, but I was never considered a great athlete. My skills enabled me to stay in the competitive mix into high school. However, my lack of skills and my perception of my abilities hindered my persistence in high school. I played soccer from kindergarten to 8th grade, but was never a technically-skilled player. Our teams succeeded because of athleticism and toughness, not skill. When I reached high school, I did not try out for the team because of my perceptions of my ability – I feared being cut from the team, so I did not try out. This happens to many children who prefer to quit on their own terms than to have someone else cut them from a team. If I had tried out, would I have made it? Probably not. I was never the type of player who stood out in tryouts, even in basketball where I was more skilled. However, I think that I was good enough to play high school soccer despite technical deficiencies.

Developing better motor skills as a child leads to greater physical activity as one grows. Stodden and colleagues (2009) found that jumping and throwing skills predicted fitness in males, and jumping and kicking skills predicted fitness in females. Stodden and colleagues (2009) suggested that children who are skilled in jumping might participate in other activities that use jumping skills or leg strength. Further, the time spent developing these skills promotes neuromuscular development. Finally, Stodden and colleagues (2009) suggested that higher levels of motor skill competence allow individuals to persist longer in the competitive stream, and transfer that competence to other activities involving physical activity.

Since I decided against trying out for soccer – a fall sport – and I had no interest in football, my choice was between water polo and cross country. I had never played either. I knew that I would be okay in cross country, as I could run all day in soccer. However, water polo looked more fun. I opted for cross country because I lacked a background in swimming – I took lessons and knew how to swim, but I was not a swimmer. Because my motor-skill competence in swimming was low, I opted for running where I felt more competent. If I had more of a background in swimming – if I had participated on a swim team for a year or two at a young age – I likely would have chosen water polo. Instead, I ran cross country, disliked it, and quit after my first season despite being relatively successful. I grew less and less physically active despite playing high school basketball, as I went from 3-4 sports in middle school to one in high school and had less time to play freely.

Tammelin and colleagues (2003) suggested that high-endurance sports and those requiring diversified skills are the most beneficial to enhancing adult physical activity and fitness. Adults tend to engage in endurance activities like running and cycling, while a diversified skill set transfers to numerous activities. With the youth basketball players who I see who lack developed catching, tracking and throwing skills, they lack the diversified skills to join new activities outside of basketball. An adult who engaged in broad motor skill development as a child might transfer to tennis, golf or another sport played more frequently by adults. As an example, despite playing eight years of baseball, I never really developed a good throwing motion. I struggle when I play volleyball, as I am a poor hitter because of this deficiency, and I also am a terrible server in tennis. Part of these flaws are technical and sport-specific, resulting from my lack of participation in volleyball and tennis as a child. However, some of the struggle is a result of a poorly developed basic motor skill pattern (throwing) which underlies the sport-specific skill execution. Rather than develop my throwing pattern, my Little League baseball coaches put me at second base where my lack of arm strength and poor throwing mechanics did not distract from my fielding ability.

Youth-sport coaches at the youngest ages have the most important role in physical activity persistence and motor skill competence. We should cherish and nurture these coaches. However, their role is vital. Children who develop better motor skills at this age will have more success in competitive sports, persist in the competitive stream longer and have more opportunities to transfer to a new sport or activity when forced out of the competitive stream. If physical activity (health) is our primary purpose for youth sports, we need to emphasize the development of basic fundamental skills (locomotor skills like running, galloping, skipping and hopping and object control skills like throwing, catching and bouncing) at young ages and more active practices once children join organized teams.

By Brian McCormick
Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

2 thoughts on “What is the Point of Youth Sports?

  • Take ownership of your life and stop blaming others.
    Hopefully you teach this to the kids you’re coaching, ‘take responsibility for your actions or in-actions.’

  • Dave:
    That’s your take home message from this article; that I’m blaming other people for my life?

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