Youth sports today look very different than generations from the past, especially as this applies to the serious nature of youth sport leagues, the increased training intensity, and the frequency in which kids play structured practices and competitions. Pick-up games are almost a thing of the past, replaced by super-busy sport schedules that push kids to play as long and as hard as possible. Are kids really getting better at their respective sports with this intense approach to athletic development? And if so, what is the cost to replacing less formal, creative play with specialized, mini-professional leagues that require kids to participate nearly every day of the week?
What makes a great athlete?
Many people today believe that pushing kids to the limit in sports is what will allow them to reach their full athletic potential, but is this really true? I recently watched a documentary In Search of Greatness featuring legendary athletes like Pele, Wayne Gretzky, and Jerry Rice, and while each man grew up in a different era, they all offered remarkably similar thoughts and views when it comes to helping kids reach their full potential. First, all three athletes frowned upon on how kids today are viewed as mini-adults, and regularly placed in hyper-intensive sport leagues that seem more like serious business than they do fun sport leagues. On the other hand, all three agreed that was has been largely lost in recent years is the value of unstructured play, creativity, fun, and being able to make mistakes and problem-solve without fear of catastrophic consequences. When kids play freely, they experience an increase in motivation, focus, problem-solving, and resiliency — all skills that are not only good in sports, but life.
Pushing kids to outwork the competition has merit — to a point — but when kids view sports as an obligatory job and not a fun life experience it may be time to revisit your experience with youth sports. In fact, kids who specialize early and play sports with few breaks throughout the year are almost certainly going to experience fatigue, staleness, and eventually sports burnout. When sports are more work than they are fun, kids tune out and in worst-case scenarios begin to hate the experience and resent the adults who continue to sign them up for league after league. Some of these kids will speak out about their distress, but many will not out of fear of letting their parents and others down — this is an especially concerning place for kids to be as it leaves them vulnerable to poor stress coping by means of substance abuse, self-harm, or other potentially dangerous and maladaptive coping.
While there has been a spike in the number of kids, including kids as young as 5-6 years old, to specialize and compete in travel leagues, there may be a serious price to be paid by means of eventual sport burnout and premature quitting of sports altogether. In fact, the majority of kids I see at my office who complain of mental fatigue from sports almost always come from the same prototype — early specialization, early travel league participation, and an overall shift away from fun sport participation to leagues that are far more serious and more closely resemble professional sports. Because of these experiences I believe there is great value looking at sport participation opportunities less focused on future D-1 scholarships and more centered around fun, healthy, less structured sport opportunities.