by Dr. Adam Wright, Ph.D.
Given that the days of unsupervised pickup games are largely a relic of the past, it is not surprising that an estimated 45 million children and adolescents participate in organized sport in the US. Once a distinguishing feature of suburban life, the changing face of the urban landscape also presents families with the opportunity to participate in a multitude of organized youth sports. While there are abundant options from which to choose at the recreation level, many parents will eventually decide to allow their children to participate in more competitive, travel-oriented sport culture.
Although there are many benefits associated with participating in highly organized competitive youth sport, there is also a darker side of participation. Often referred to as the “professionalization of youth sport,” experts are concerned about the potential negative effects resulting from the rapid growth of the travel-sport industry in the US. The goal of this article is to present a rational framework to help parents more effectively navigate this potentially confusing and stressful youth sport environment and in so doing, help define an approach that leads to a positive life-long sporting experience for the entire family.
Make no mistake, youth sport is big business.
According to data collected by researchers at the University of Florida in 2014, the estimated annual cost of youth sports equipment and travel sport participation in America is five billion dollars. The economic impact of related medical expenses (i.e., sprains, strains, factures, contusions, abrasions, concussions, etc.) is an estimated 935 million annually. Finally, researchers calculated the additional generated revenue of travel sports throughout US communities at a whopping seven billion dollars.
Clearly, the economics surrounding the youth sport industry suggest that sport organizations have a strong financial incentive to compete for youth athletes’ time and their parents’ dollars through an emphasis on early age sport specialization and a push for yearlong single sport participation. No matter what your travel coach or neighbor may argue, a body of research - and a bit of common sense - suggests that while such an approach may benefit an organizations’ bottom line, it may not be in the best interest of your child’s long-term athletic growth and development.
Why do most children quit organized sport before the age of 13?
We must ask ourselves why 35% of young athletes quit participation in organized sport each year and why, by the age of 13, 70% of youth athletes have completely dropped out of organized sport. In order to answer these questions surrounding organized sport attrition, we must consider why children report playing organized sport in the first place. When researchers from Michigan State University and George Washington University surveyed young athletes as to why they play sport, “having fun” was reported as their primary motive. While children enjoy winning, particularly as they age, that reason does not make the top-10 list for younger athletes. Interestingly, one only needs to stand on the sidelines at a recreational soccer game to witness many parents’ primary motivation: to experience the thrill of a testosterone surge after complete domination of the rival youth sport team.
Conversely, the most frequently cited reason that children reported dropping out of youth sport is that it stopped being fun. Probe a bit further and you will find that the specific reasons that organized sport stopped being fun is because kids felt too much pressure to perform, are overly criticized by coaches, and are afraid to make mistakes. In addition, parents can add to their child’s sport induced stress and anxiety by setting unrealistic goals of performance and pushing children beyond their current skill set, emotional readiness, or individual interest.
Perhaps an underlying factor contributing to attrition rates is related to coaching education, or lack thereof. For example, less than 20% of little league coaches and less than 8% of high school coaches received any formal coach training. While some club coaches are well-trained and educated professionals, it is possible that their coaching philosophy and behavior may be more appropriate for college level and professional athletes. Parents’ simply cannot over estimate the influential role of the youth coach. Ponder this fact for a moment. In many cases, the child who is participating on a travel team will spend more time with the travel team coach and team members than she interacts directly with one’s family during the week. Yet, regulations and systems to monitor the preparation and appropriateness of youth coaches are virtually non-existent and vary considerably across states and sports.
What is that elusive pot of gold that parents are pushing their kids toward?
For many parents, pressure to commit to early sport specialization for their child is motivated by the promise of social, financial or educational rewards. Yet, the realistic chance of an economic windfall in the form of a college scholarship or a professional contract is a statistical long shot at best. Let’s consider some data. On average, less than 3 percent of high school athletes receive athletic scholarships, and the majority of those scholarships are only partial (approximately 11,000k annually).
If you consider the financial investment in lessons, camps, elite travel teams, tournaments, equipment, travel expenses, etc., the total expense far exceeds the value of most college scholarships. Moreover, if you still remain motivated by the promise of financial reward, the data suggest that you should have your children focus more on the books rather than the field. Take the University of Michigan, for example. Approximately 2 percent of students receive athletic scholarships; yet, 70 percent received academic scholarships. Perhaps money and time may be better spent on a physics tutor. Do the math… enough said.
And what about the chance of earning a professional contract? According to Michigan State researchers, the odds of high school baseball player making the MLB are One in 4,000. One in 6,000 high school football players will make the NFL and the chances of a high school basketball player making it to the NBA are one in 10,000. Even if your child is that lucky athletic outlier who avoids injury and burnout and makes it to the professional level, there is no guarantee of a financial windfall. For instance, the minimum salary at MLS is 60,000, while the median is 117,000. This may be a respectable income to play the sport you love, it is a far cry from that elusive pot of gold lying at the end of the scholarship rainbow.
I understand it is a long shot, but my son/daughter has been identified as an exceptional talent and truly has a chance of elite athletic status.
Ok, if you still are committed to your child’s unlikely road to sport stardom, let’s take a different approach toward rational living. Early sport specialization and over commitment to a single sport is not the path that will take her there. While early specialization may be essential in sports where one’s peak performance occurs in adolescence or early adulthood, such as gymnastics, figure skating and diving (given the biomechanical demands and restrictions on one’s physiology), the research does not support this notion in any other sport. In addition, a multitude of studies have shown that exceptional sport specific athletic performance at an early age is an unreliable predictor for future sport success. This is not surprising given the physical, psychological, emotional and cognitive changes that children experience throughout their natural developmental process. In the words of Canadian sport scientist, Istvan Balyi, “puberty is the great equalizer, and there’s no telling what will happen to kids or more importantly, to their peers, once hormones kick in.”
As a result, early identification is tremendously difficult for even the best and most experienced professional coaches – let alone, local travel coaches. Ironically, sport researchers point out that the earlier an athlete is identified as “talented” in a particular sport, the prediction of future success is less certain. Those travel team officials that argue that there is “no off season” and that children must commit fully to a sport (long before he forgoes sleeping with a teddy bear or security blanket) to have a chance for future success are propagating a convenient “truth,” with no supporting scientific evidence.
Another falsehood that has been circulated by the media and absorbed by the greater sport culture can be attributed to the writer, Malcolm Gladwell. He famously coined the phrase, “the 10,000 hour-rule,” which states that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to gain elite status in one’s chosen field. This reasoning leads one to assume that one must commit to a sport early on to accumulate enough hours to become world class. The problem is that Gladwell got it wrong. As Anders Ericsson, the Florida State University researchers who published the original 1993 study to which Gladwell referred, explains that while that substantial hours of deliberate practice is essential to developing exceptional skills, the time it takes varies considerably from person to person and from field to field. While debates continue regarding the relative impact of genetics, training, diet, culture, opportunity, psychology, and geography, it is clear these are all crucial elements in the development of elite performers. Hence, there is no magic formula to predict mastery.
A final nail in the coffin of the early specialization myth is that research shows it sets a child up for a host of possible negative outcomes, including burnout, overuse injuries, and a reduced chance of life long sport participation. Indeed, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the United States Olympic Committee, US Soccer, US Lacrosse, and international sport scientists all agree that specialization should not occur until age 12 at the earliest, ideally at age 15. There is no ambiguity in the research. Athletes who play a variety of sports report fewer injuries, less burnout and are more likely to play sport at a high level. In short, late specialization with early diversification is the most likely road to elite athletic status and life-long physical activity.
But what about the early specialization that occurs in the European training academies? For example, the model seems to be effective for international professional soccer players.
Even in the European professional developmental pipelines, coaches recognize the value of general neuro-muscular development. From the perspective of the top academies, money does not interfere with proper long-term athletic development; it enhances it. That is, academies recognize that if they do not focus on general physical literacy and overall wellbeing of athletes, their financial assets will be jeopardized. For example, to teach young athletes physical literacy skills to improve general athleticism and to avoid injuries (and perhaps, to have a bit of fun), Manchester United includes circus skills trainers and parkour runners within their training programs. Similarly, the Swedish soccer super star, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, obtained a black belt in Judo at 17 while training at Ajax, the famed Dutch soccer club. In addition, this rational approach toward long-term athletic development also drives academies to monitor the health status of their athletes, including sleep, nutrition, physiology, and psychological wellbeing. How much time do US youth travel teams spend on monitoring an athlete’s health and wellbeing off the field? My educated guess is zero.
Let’s put health, safety and costs issues aside, the professionalism of youth sport is a phenomenon that does not show signs of dissipating
There appears to be no stopping the trend of the travel-sport culture in the US. While the state of affairs surrounding organized youth sport is alarming, the alternative presents a reality in which a sedentary lifestyle is often the default choice. When we consider that schools across the US have limited physical education classes, reduced access to free play at recess and time spent in front of screens is estimated to exceed 7.5 hours per day in children aged 8-18, the possible negative consequences are enormous. According to the CDC, approximately a third of US children and adolescents are overweight or obese and the deleterious effects on childhood health and wellbeing are both immediate and long-term. Moreover, studies abound that underscore the positive impact of physical activity on the physiological, psychosocial, cognitive, and emotional development of children and adolescents.
In fact, when ESPN magazine commissioned the University Florida to research how a large sample (n=1250) of elite youth athletes felt about playing their sport (9 different sports in 11 states), they almost unanimously reported (96%) that they loved it. Beyond the rewards inherent in the participation in vigorous exercise, many participants seem to enjoy the intensity, travel, comradery and challenge that competitive travel-sports provides. The reality is that if you are going to set your child up for a positive sport experience within this highly competitive culture, it is essential that you approach this process with a rational mind to avoid falling victim to the emotion and myths that permeate this culture. There is a world of positive benefits to glean from participation in organized youth sport, but it is your responsibility as a parent to assure that your child has the best chance to enjoy those rewards.
Here are 10 evidenced-based strategies to help you maintain a rational approach to your child’s youth sport participation:
1. Foster a Healthy Ego
Like Brando in, On the Waterfront, perhaps you, “Coulda been a contender.” Then again, perhaps you were an exceptional athlete. Either way, don’t allow regrets or expectations based on your athletic past impact your child’s current or future opportunities. Be mindful of falling into the “reverse dependency trap,” when a parent over identifies with their child’s sport experience and measures their personal self-worth through her child’s success on the field. When making decisions for your child’s level of sport participation, take your ego and social pressures out of the equation and let the primary goals of healthy long-term athletic and personal development guide your thinking process. A less ego-invested approach leads to your child taking ownership of their participation, which is a precursor for mastery, in sport and in life.
2. Avoid Benchmarking
Avoid comparing your child’s athletic skills and level of performance with other children. While benchmarking is not a wise parenting strategy in general, it is particularly toxic in athletics. This approach can lead to lowered self-esteem, self worth, self-efficacy, and confidence. While competition can be a driving force toward actualizing one’s athletic potential, direct your child to become competitive with his previous accomplishments, not another teammates. All children have an individual developmental clock. Allow your child’s unique developmental timeframe to evolve naturally and focus on your child’s specific strengths and talents.
3. Focus on the Long-term
Do not fall victim to the notion of short-term success over long-term athletic development. Adopt a growth mindset toward sport parenting so your child models a similar perspective toward sport participation, education, and life in general. This means that you should reward effort, taking chances, and making mistakes. Emphasize process and performance over winning so that sport does not become an “outcome focused enterprise.” The only path to long-term success in sport is to allow kids the freedom to learn to love playing the game on their own terms, take ownership of her experience, and ultimately, develop an intrinsic motivation to work on continual improvement and the pursuit of excellence.
4. “I love to watch you play”
According to some youth sport advocates, the only 6 words a parent should offer a child when it comes to sport participation and performance is, “I love to watch you play.” While this may be an aspirational goal, perhaps a more practical approach would be to recognize that offering observations or a critical analysis regarding your child’s play directly after a game will likely be met with resistance, frustration, and deaf ears. There is a reason that professional teams do not perform video analysis of game day performance until the following days when emotions have cooled and self-reflection and openness to learning are possible. At the minimum, allow for at least 24 hours to pass before discussing your child’s performance.
5. Limit your discussion to three questions
If a day has passed and you still feel the need to discuss your child’s performance, limit the discussion to the following three questions: a.) What did you do well? b.) What did you learn? c.) What can you work on to improve next time? Then again, you could always leave coaching to the coaches.
6. Be a positive sport role model
Show interest in your child’s activities by being relaxed and calm on the sidelines. This will provide a positive behavioral model when positioned next to overly emotional and inappropriately behaved parents. In most cases, the children cannot hear your cheers and directions from the sideline and if they do, it will only negatively impact their attentional focus. If you cannot resist the urge to engage, maintain a growth mindset perspective; that is, reward effort not outcome.
7. Be an advocate for your child, both on and off the field.
Demand a developmental athletic pathway that places the interest of children first, not the organization’s bottom line. Do your research when choosing a reputable club and ask for a copy of your coach’s CV. Listen actively to your child’s experiences, concerns and complaints. Don’t be afraid to speak up if your child is struggling or if you witness inappropriate coaching behavior. Once again, abide by the 24-hour rule before engaging with a coach. In these instances, a rational mind is much more useful than an emotional one.
8. Embrace your inner sport scientist
Unlike European sport academies, your child does not have access to daily health monitoring. Nonetheless, the physical and psychological demands that travel teams place on your child are immense. Since your child is training like an adult, she needs to be monitored like one. Keep an eye on your child’s physical and emotional health. Be particularly aware of proper nutrition, rest and recovery. When in doubt, consult with a professional.
9. Keep perspective
Organized sport participation is an investment in your child’s physical, cognitive and psychosocial growth, not a college scholarship. Keep in mind that the long-term goal of sport participation is healthy child development, of which athleticism is only one significant aspect. As a consequence, respect the individual developmental process of your young athlete and maintain realistic expectations for your child’s age appropriate athletic abilities.
10. Diversification over specialization
Postpone early specialization as long as possible and continue to encourage sport sampling throughout development. Purposeful sport sampling will enable children to find their passion, which leads to intrinsic motivation. Continue to encourage free play to develop general physical literacy skills and fundamental movement patterns so your young athlete can build a neuromuscular system that is competition and, most importantly, general physiological and psychological life stressors. To force a child to play a single sport prior to age 12, without developing essential motor patterns and general physical literacy is not only shortsighted, but also dangerous. Repeat this mantra: diversification over specialization…diversification over specialization.
Adam Wright, Ph.D. is a nationally recognized peak performance consultant whose roster includes elite level performers across a multitude of sports, internationally acclaimed artists, Fortune 400 CEO’s and hedge fund executives. He is also a peer-reviewed author, a college instructor in sport and exercise psychology and a speaker on optimal human performance and youth sport. More information can be found at Dradamwright.com or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.