When I was growing up, nothing thrilled me more than long summer days and the promise of getting the neighborhood kids together for wiffle ball; or pick-up basketball; or touch football; or…you get the point. I’ve often thought that some of my best and most enjoyable moments in sport were during these times. There were no adults around – and we had kids ranging from elementary to middle school age. Yet we were somehow miraculously able to formulate our own teams and rules; solve any disputes or arguments ourselves; and keep the games going until either daylight became scarce, or someone called us for dinner. We refereed our own games – provided our own snacks (probably more accurately, the trips to 7-11 did); and generally made sure that the competition remained safe, fair, and fun.
All of which leads me to the question of what the “arms race” to build a better athlete is coming to? Maybe I’m wrong, but since the sports industry, and professional sports has gradually morphed from big business – into mega, mega big business and entertainment – the idea of playing for fun has dropped further down the list of driving reasons to play sports. When I was young being a professional athlete was definitely a dream of mine. I’m sure I knew that my sport heroes made “good money”. But since then, zeroes have been added to the end of the average salaries in sports – and for the top athletes in the top paying sports, multiple zeroes have been added. What used to be shocking was to see a $1 million dollar contract – whereas now we don’t blink at the notion of a $100 million dollar contract. And somewhere along the lines, the financial distinction between “us” and “them” in sports; changed from “us – the fans” and “them – the owners” – to “us – the fans” and “them – the athletes”. Somewhere along the lines, sports became a financial means to an end.
When sports started to become a financial means to an end, it changed the way we thought about athletics. It’s becoming abundantly clear, that impact has trickled down to youth sports – and has had an impact on the idea of kids just getting together to play sports “for fun”. What’s somewhat alarming, is the increase in the amount of times I hear youth sports and it’s importance in a child’s life tied to the idea of financal gain. It’s not uncommon to hear the reasoning for putting a child into year-round sports training, and specialized programs – as ultimately gaining a college scholarship, or to possibly become a professional athlete. Whereas we used to see this type of specialized training and emphasis beginning in the early teens – it’s now common for kids as young as 1st and 2nd grades! It’s often shown emphatically in how youth teams are formed – and often classmates are left behind by the group as early as 2nd or 3rd grade; for simply not choosing to start participating in a certain sport until the ripe-old age of 7 years old. This leads to the pervasive viewpoint that children need to start playing advanced organized sports; and receive some form of specialized training for these sports at an early age. Or risk the consequences of being left behind. The myth is, that you can never “catch up”.
The unfortunate side-effect, is that as the more adults intervene in sports at an earlier age – the less it becomes about fun. It leads to the idea that sports are only worth playing when “the lights are on”, and when it “matters”. That’s not to take away the critical role that adult coaches play in taking time to teach kids the game – and for parents to teach their kids the sports they know and love as kids grow up. But, there’s also important lessons kids learn when they “just play for fun” among themselves. Besides all the physical health benefits, it teaches kids to resolve disputes and problems among themselves – and about making the game fair. If they don’t, kids leave -and the game ends. There’s nothing wrong with being driven and wanting to excel in a sport you love. But at what age? And at what cost? We firmly believe in the idea, that kids should play any and every sport they can. Meaning – that as you grow up, you get exposed to multiple sports; multiple teams; multiple opponents; multiple coaches and role models; and multple teammates. As you specialize your sport and your training at a younger age – you also close off the door to other experiences; and keep the door for others to join more tightly closed.
The idea that sports will go back to the “way it was”, is not a realistic one. As sport and entertainment becomes more and more entwined, the opportunity for money and big business just increases. But, it is important that we keep that separated from the youth sports world as much as possible. The “arms race” to build a better athlete, can already be felt on a national scale when kids reach high school – and if you need any evidence watch the recruiting rankings. Or turn on ESPN as they show a high school football or basketball game of “national relevance”. I hope that’s as young as it goes. Because the less kids just play sports “for fun”; and organize sports experiences amongst themselves “for fun” – the less fun sports become for all kids, and ultimately my belief is that less kids will play as they get older. It’s not a bad thing for a kid to dream about one day becoming a professional athlete. Just make sure it’s their dream, and not yours.