Would you rather play on an average team, or sit the bench on a good team?
This question is one increasingly more kids must answer these days, especially as adults continue to substitute fun, easy going recreational sport opportunities with competitive, serious select leagues where even talented kids are challenged to see the playing field. In previous generations participation and skill building allowed all kids to play sports, but today athletic talent is being groomed at earlier ages, leaving kids with average talent who don’t specialize and commit to hyper-competitive sport training left behind. The modern-day youth sport paradigm has changed from one that instructed all kids at roughly the same pace with training and development, to today’s model where kids need to commit early to a sport, likely specialize in that sport, and for some — even with above-average athletic talent — to accept sitting on the bench because they still weren’t good enough. While this approach to youth sports may work for the most talented kids, it simultaneously puts other kids with average talent (who might be late bloomers) at a distinct disadvantage early in their sports careers, pushing many to quit prematurely due to limited opportunities for future growth.
Sit or play?
Back to the original question, would you rather play on an average team or sit the bench on a good team? While answers may vary, what we do know through an abundance of youth sport surveys is that the primary reason why kids play sports is to have fun. Is it more fun to get on the field, learn new skills, and actually play sports with teammates, or instead sit the bench and wash away into the background while only the best kids see the field? While there isn’t a right or wrong response to this question, the guess here is that most kids would rather play and have fun than wonder before each game why they are even on the team?
From a developmental psychology perspective, kids love and need to play! The more engaged kids are with healthy and safe activities, the faster they learn interpersonal skills, problem-solving, collaboration and teamwork, and overcoming adversity. Additionally, kids learn many more things by doing, including creativity and synchronizing their minds and bodies so that they can feel what it’s like to set and reach goals. Don’t get me wrong, there is value in observational learning (i.e. sitting on the bench on a good team), but I think most experts would agree there is no developmental substitute for actually getting a chance to try things in life first-hand.
Why the push for more intensity?
So why have things changed so much over the years, from an “every kid plays” sport participation model to today’s stratified approach where the most naturally talented kids are quickly channeled into travel leagues and other sport specialization decisions? Why do kids under 10 need to play 50-100 games over a summer, and have their entire youth development consistently work around a sport schedule that never seems to end? Why is it necessary to travel 10 hours away for “better competition” for kids just entering middle school? Is there a return on this kind of investment of time, money, and energy? While it is true that keeping structure and engaging kids in physical activity is great, pushing young kids to uphold a sport schedule that even adults would be challenged by is not so great. In fact, kids who are pushed in sports run the risk of sports burnout, and may end up quitting sports prematurely as a result. Furthermore, when we consider that only about 5% of all high school students will ever make it to the college level — and that most of those individuals will not earn more than partial scholarships (and not “full rides”) — it really does make you wonder if all this push for kids to play intense sports so young really makes sense?
Youth sports can be a fantastic experience for kids, and kids report that the #1 reason they play sports is to have fun! While kids can learn by sitting on the bench, their experience is generally much more enjoyable and educational when they are on the field, working with teammates, and actually competing against an opponent who pushes them to play their best. Playing, therefore, is almost always a healthier and more exciting way to enjoy sports versus sitting on the bench. Unfortunately, high-intensity sports are pushing out recreational sports, and this is not helping kids developmentally, nor does this approach guarantee a return on investment by means of an eventual full-ride college scholarship.