Every day, I read another article that is critical of youth sports. Identifying the problems is easy, but few articles suggest real, practical solutions, and I am unsure whether the suggested solutions would make a practical difference and alleviate the problems.
Most articles identify an unnamed, bygone era when youth sports were better. Typically, this is the author’s childhood. For my purposes, I will do the same.
When I played youth sports, I played 3+ sports into high school (late specialization). I never had a private coach, nor played for a club team; however, my friends who played college soccer played club soccer, although most, if not all did not specialize until high school or college. I grew up with one Olympian who did not specialize in track & field until his sophomore year, and one NFL player who played two sports throughout high school. I had two friends make it to AAA baseball; one did not even play baseball in his freshman year of high school and did not specialize until college, and the other specialized as a sophomore after one season of football. Many friends played American Legion in high school, but only one played club baseball.
As a child, I played for parent-coaches until high school. My coaches had no coach education. My soccer coach for a few years was a P.E. teacher; otherwise, I played for an accountant, construction manager, several doctors, a phone company manager, and a real estate broker. Their knowledge of the sport varied, but they provided a great environment. We enjoyed playing. In hindsight, their instruction and drills could have been better and more game-like, but their approach was not much different than many traditional coaches.
At every level, I was under the impression that winning was the most important thing, but I never felt shame or embarrassment when we lost, and I do not remember a coach yelling at us about a loss. Most of our frustration when we lost was with ourselves. I was on successful teams, mediocre teams, and teams that barely won a game. I probably had nearly as much fun on the bad teams as the good teams.
For the most part, everyone played. In soccer and baseball, it was either a rule or an unwritten rule that everyone played; in basketball, there were games when a player or two did not play. However, our basketball program started B and C teams for 4th-8th graders to get more players involved and playing, as basketball was the only sport that had tryouts prior to high school.
We specialized in positions, and the best players played the most important positions. Our coaches did not give everyone equal chances or equal playing time. In my entire Little League career, I probably played 90% of my innings at 1st or 2nd base, and I think I played only one inning in the outfield, missing a fly ball and telling my coach that I needed to return to the infield (I had asked to play the OF because I thought it would help me make the All-Star team if I had more versatility because nearly everyone who made the All-Star team was a short stop). In soccer, our best players alternated between goalie and striker, and I typically played as an outside midfielder, always trying to prove that I was good enough to move into the central midfield. The outside midfielders and outside fullbacks tended to be the weaker players (I was one of the youngest players, as were the outside fullbacks, as we were a grade behind everyone else), and we were the ones who typically substituted in and out of the game, whereas the better players in the center of the field played the whole game.
During the summer, I attended camps, swam, or played near my house. I attended an all-sports camp when I was in 4th grade, I think, but the camp was shut down shortly thereafter, as I believe one of the coaches was arrested for something inappropriate in the pool with a camper. My first basketball camp was prior to 5th grade; I went to the Terry Tyler Basketball Camp. He played for the Kings and lived behind me. One morning, our dryer caught on fire, and my camp t-shirt was in the dryer. After the fire was put out, I had to walk over to his house and ask if I could get a new t-shirt. I am pretty sure that I went to the camp because the older girls who lived across the street were going, and their mom wanted to carpool.
Throughout grade school, I played 25 organized games, at most, in a basketball season, 10 games per soccer season, and roughly 20 baseball games per season; in junior-high school, I played winter baseball, although it was my least favorite sport, and we played another 20 or so baseball games. Winter ball, which actually was in September and October, was awesome because we played under the lights. We also played double headers on the weekend, so I occasionally had a soccer game in the morning and a baseball double header in the afternoon. I thought this was the best thing in the world.
Outside of these organized games, we played basketball at almost every recess and lunch period from 3rd to 8th grade. We mixed in some football, kickball, softball, and soccer, but we primarily played basketball. We occasionally fought. We kept score. We talked trash. We were competitive.
When I played, transferring schools or teams was rare. I played in 3 Little Leagues in 10 years, but the last 7 years in the same league; I switched when I was young to play with a friend from school, but switched to a league closer to my house after we moved. I played for one soccer club from kindergarten through 8th grade. I played for one middle school and one high school in basketball. I don’t remember many friends transferring; we had one basketball player in the class behind me transfer in as a sophomore to attend the same school as his step-brother. I think our baseball team had a transfer when we were sophomores. I remember there being a high-profile football transfer between two local powerhouse programs because of the controversy. Then, it was a front-page article for several days; today, I doubt it would make the news because transfers are so commonplace. Jumping to new teams and schools is a part of youth sports now; everyone is looking for a better deal, more prominent program, more playing time, or whatever motivates one to transfer. It is rare for a player to play in the same club for 10 years as was fairly commonplace for my friends and peers.
Through this trip down memory lane, it appears that the three biggest differences between my experience and today’s youth sports are early specialization that leads to more organized games in a single sport, the reduction in free play, and the transfers/switching teams. We did not have educated coaches; our coaches played to win; players were pigeon-holed into positions; positions were dictated by a win-now mentality without regard to relative age effects.
Despite these facts, the two solutions that are proposed the most are coach education and more structured, private training. Coach education could have some positive affects, especially in terms of realizing the relative age effect, the need for young children to play different positions, and encouraging or demanding playing time for everyone.
However, for the most part, early specialization is not the choice of the coaches; instead, it is the parents who seek these year-round teams rather than playing different sports. Some coaches contribute to this, as I know girls who quit club soccer this season because their club soccer coach was upset that they had the audacity to run track (and qualify for the state meet) for their high schools. Many club programs implicitly (prohibitive costs) or explicitly pressure players into one sport, but parents do not have to sign up for these clubs. There are plenty of alternative programs.
Similarly, one of the biggest changes that I have noticed is the attitude of the athletes. They lack respect for their own coaches and the referees. I was no saint as a child, but I would have sat out for a while if I picked up a technical foul or yellow card for yelling at a referee. Barely a game goes by without a player receiving a yellow card for dissent these days, and parents and coaches do not even bat an eye. Instead, many encourage the behaviors. Players do not respect their coaches and instead listen to their parents in the stands during timeouts. Potentially a coach education program would give coaches more authority, but I don’t know. I see the same behaviors with college players playing for Hall-of-Fame coaches. I don’t know how a certificate would give a coach more credibility than a Hall of Fame induction.
Do children play more games today? Yes, if you mean organized games. I am not sure that children today play more games than I did as a child; however, the games are different. I probably played 8-10 unstructured games for every organized game, whereas almost all competitive play today is structured. Therefore, I am not sure it is the number of games, but the kind of games. If you outlawed summer basketball games, players would find a way to play games at the park or local gyms like we did. They would still play games.
Do coaches need some form of coach education? Yes. However, there is so much more information available online and in bookstores than when I was a child. It is easy for a coach to learn. A coach education program’s biggest benefit may be curating these various resources. Every week, it seems, there is conflicting information in every area of our lives; who should we trust? What information should we use and what information should we disregard?
In terms of changing the youth sports scene, the most important education would be to educate coaches on the correlation between games and injuries, the need for more general athletic development, the effect of the relative age effect in talent identification, and more. Coaches know far more about their sports today than they did in the past, and that might be more of a problem. Now, coaches talk too much and try to do all of the thinking for the players. Because of their knowledge, and their desire to impart this knowledge to their players, they create environments that are not conducive to learning.
Furthermore, many problems arise because of the Internet. Coaches are criticized on message boards. Players are ranked week by week. Players become Internet celebrities on YouTube. Coaches call themselves experts because of their blog. The Internet certainly has changed youth sports, and there is no way to return to a time before the Internet. We have to adapt to the new realities rather than long for the days of yore.
In the end, the biggest changes that I would propose would be anything to reduce specialization and to increase unstructured play activities. In terms of learning, development, injury reduction, and fun, these changes will have the biggest positive effects for the young athletes.