At the gym this week, I watched a seventh grader work with a personal shooting coach for an hour. After his lesson, his mother spoke to another coach and had the coach watch her son and offer pointers. Then, the child shot for another hour as his mother watched and critiqued every shot. After the child had shot for two-and-a-half hours, he started to whine. He wanted to go home. His mother told him to make 20 free throws in a row. Eventually, a team had practice and kicked him off the court.
When I was young, I imagine there were days when I shot by myself for two hours. I know I set goals like making 20 shots in a row before going inside. However, I made the decisions. I initiated the practice, I set my own goals, I decided when to finish. My individual practice was child-initiated and based on my motivations. I practiced because I enjoyed shooting.
The mother initiated the child’s practice, setting goals, hiring trainers and talking to coaches. The child did not want to continue. He was not enjoying the activity. His body slumped after every missed shot that prolonged his practice, he whined and he threw the ball. Maybe the mother wanted to teach her son a lesson about practice habits, work ethic or discipline. However, I saw a child starting to hate basketball.
In the United States, we face an obesity epidemic. Children are fat. However, we also have turned childhood sports into a scholarship chase. I believe the obesity issues stem from the same misguided philosophy which turned youth sports into the pursuit of the ephemeral dream, rather than a time for fun, activity, learning and exploration.
Parents rush their children into competitive athletics because they do not want their son or daughter to fall behind. These efforts are misguided. K. Anders Ericsson, author of The Road to Excellence, believes “when it comes to choosing a life path, you should do what you love because if you don’t love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good.”
Ericsson believes a person needs hours of deliberate practice to become an expert performer. In a sense, the mother provided an environment for deliberate practice. This is the approach parents take. They know their child needs to practice and work hard to be successful, so they start the child down this path at earlier and earlier ages, like the mother of the six-year-old. However, the parents miss the first requirement: kids must love what they are doing. Pushing a child into an activity too hard and too soon often has the opposite effect, turning the child against the activity.
When a child quits sports at an early age, he is less likely to resume these activities later. Kids love to learn and explore. They do not compare themselves to others. They enjoy playing and learning. However, as we age, we become more self-conscious and more aware of others.
A teenager is unlikely to try a new sport because he does not want to fail. People associate a failure in an activity with a character flaw and worry others might like them less just because they cannot shoot a basketball or catch a football. While it is easy to dismiss these feelings, how many adults actively pursue activities in which they are not very good or have never tried? Now, imagine doing so during adolescence. No wonder P.E. is the worst class of the day for many kids.
Once upon a time, children played hopscotch at recess and jumped off swings at the highest peak. They jumped over (or into) puddles and skipped just for fun. Jumping rope was a game children played to song.
Now, as recess disappears and the pursuit of a scholarship grips parents as soon as their young prodigy takes his first steps, personal trainers painstakingly count the number of foot touches in a plyometric workout to prevent over-training and burnout. Depth jumps are prohibited for all but the most advanced children. The play activities of past generations are regimented training activities used to prepare young athletes for sporting success.
In The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin, a world champion in chess and Judo, writes: “the most important factor in these first few months of study was that Bruce [his first chess coach] nurtured my love for chess, and he never let technical material smother my innate feelings for the game.” Eventually, Waitzkin moved to more intense levels of training and instruction. However, this occurred after he developed a passion for chess and a desire to pursue the sport.
In the gym, the mother failed to nurture her son’s love for basketball though her efforts stemmed from a good place. As we change physical activity from fun games to training activities, we lose children who are uninterested in or psychologically unprepared for the competitive nature of youth athletics.
The media points to the dedication of Tiger Woods at an early age to illustrate successful athletic development. However, how many young prodigies never make it? These are the stories left untold. Parents and coaches latch onto the Tiger Woods’ story, but nobody learns from Todd Marinovich or Jennifer Capriati or the dozens of others who quit sports altogether before they reached any level of noteworthiness. Rather than looking at Woods as the rule, what if he is the exception? What if he developed in spite of the pushing, not because of it? What if Woods, like Waitzkin, developed the passion for the game first and then engaged in the deliberate practice which elevated him into the world’s greatest golfer? The media only captures part of the story; maybe the real story is the fun games that he played with his father when he was young which generated his intense interest in golf.
Youth sports are not the pre-minor leagues. Children are not miniature professionals. Whether the goal is to develop your child into an All-American or just to keep your child active, the method is the same: youth sports should be fun, child-centered, exploratory and learning-oriented, not a competitive cauldron or pre-professional training.