Kids today are routinely forced to make youth sport decisions very early in life, including whether to specialize in one sport, and if they prefer more intense, “travel” sport competition over recreational sports. Compare this model with generations from the past, where kids regularly engaged in free-play (i.e. simply going outside and playing pick-up games), and participated in one-size-fits-all, inclusive recreation sports. What does all of this mean? That hyper-competitive, business-like sports filled with structure, intensity, and pressure have pushed out fun, unstructured play and reasonable expectations for kids, creating a very different sport experience for your child compared to the one you likely enjoyed. Is this a positive trend, or instead preventing kids from enjoying the psychological and physical benefits of free play and competing in sports with more emphasis on holistic growth and less focus on future college athletic scholarships?
Changes in youth sports
Looking at youth sports the last 30 years we have witnessed a greater intensity with both sport training and sport competition. The split between elite and recreation sports occurs at ridiculously young ages (often before any true assessment of sport interest and/or talent has taken place), with one group of kids beginning hyper-competitive sport training in travel leagues, while the other group of kids (who may include athletically talented kids, mind you) is left to search for the few remaining recreation sport leagues you can find in your town.
It is not any one person‘s fault that we now have elite, travel sport expectations for kids as the norm today, but what is being lost is free play and less intense sport participation opportunities. Additionally, while we have legions of kids participating in travel leagues, many of those kids are there only because their parents signed them up (and in some cases kids lack the interest/talent to play at an elite level, but end up getting stuck there against their will). Sport psychology studies regularly show that the #1 reason why kids play sports is to have fun, but we must ask ourselves how much “fun” are kids having when their sports commitment is intense, limiting to one sport, offers few breaks, and feels much more like a job than a fun childhood experience?
The importance of unstructured, fun play
When I studied in Denmark many years ago, I was taught the importance of unstructured play, and that it embodied the way the Danes raised their kids. Free play, from their view, helps with child development by encouraging kids to participate, interact with others in healthy ways, employ creativity, and perhaps more than anything else keep the focus on FUN! Randomly selecting teams, improvising rules and creating new sport fields based on whatever land is available around you are aspects to free play that help kids use their minds and enjoy friends. All good, healthy stuff!
Now compare the benefits of free play against elite youth sports, where kids are regularly expected to prioritize their specialized sport over most all other life experiences, and to train in ways that more resemble professional athletes than playing pick-up games with friends at the local park. Rather than keeping the focus on fun and healthy psychological, emotional, and physical growth, today’s young athletes spend more time on creating highlight reels for college coaches to view, attending ID camps to get noticed, and following college coaches on Twitter with the hopes of an eventual college athletic scholarship. While this intense sport experience might work for a select few kids, most kids are far better served by means of free play and recreational sport opportunities.
Kids today spend less time engaging in free play, pickup games, and recreational sports, and are instead are being channeled into more intense sport experiences and at earlier ages in life. As we see these changes, we must ask ourselves about the purpose of youth sports, and how we might create experiences that best prepare kids for holistic development and future life success rather than treating them like mini-adults pursuing professional sports. Encourage your kids to go outside and play, and continue to explore sport options that make the most sense for your kids and their overall health and wellness.