Sports channeling occurs when young athletes are slotted for specific sports or positions based on factors like height, speed, overall athleticism, and even race. For example, when a youngster is above-average in height he is almost always nudged and encouraged to play basketball (what chance do you think current Harlem Globetrotter 7’8″ “Tiny” Sturgess had to not play basketball?). The erroneous assumption many adults make is that if a youngster has a talent, skill, or attribute that would help in a particular sport, then the kid must also love and want to play that sport. Think about it — how many times have you witnessed a tall kid (boy or girl) be immediately directed to start playing basketball?
Sports channeling also crosses racial lines, as African American kids – especially in predominately white communities and schools – are regularly slotted in skilled football positions, like running back or wide receiver. To date, there does not appear to be any scientific empirical evidence suggesting black kids are better than non-black kids at those positions, yet you regularly see this happening in schools and youth football leagues across the country.
It’s understandable that people like to make shortcuts (called “heuristics”) when making decisions and appraising talents, but some of the shortcuts that are being made are quite fallible. In the previous examples, not all tall kids are good at (or even like) basketball, while not all black kids are the best for skilled positions in football. Similarly, not every flexible kid wants to be a gymnast, nor does every tough kid want to go into wrestling. Still, many people use these markers to make these decisions for kids.
The best thing to do is to keep open communication with kids interested in sports, and listen closely to what they say interests them (even if it goes against your sports logic). Keep in mind it’s very possible that a tall kid may not want to play basketball, and a black kid might actually like to play on the offensive line. You might even meet a tough kid who likes a relatively passive sport (like baseball), or a flexible kid who enjoys a sport like bowling more than gymnastics!
Regardless of what sport(s) a kid plays, the most important thing is that it’s a fun, safe, and meaningful experience – do your part to maintain an open mind and help kids reach this goal.