It’s a Saturday morning, young people across the country wake up early to prepare for the big day…..Game Day!! They reluctantly grab a small breakfast, as their parents insist they have something to eat. The car is loaded, and mom and dad have the cooler full of oranges and sports drinks. They drive long distances, because after all they are in a competitive travel league, so long car rides are just a part of the routine. They eagerly run onto the field or court, they warm up and are excited to see how their team stacks up. Then the big moment…..they do a team cheer and the coach places the starters onto the field.
OK, so Suzie wasn’t starting, but she was still anxious to see how the game would go. So she watched, and she cheered, and she waited. Time ticked away and Suzie watched as her teammates ran up and down, scored goals, and blocked shots. Oh, how she wanted to try out that new move they had worked on at practice this week. Maybe, just maybe she’ll get in there and show what she’s learned.
As half of the game ticks away Suzie gets the big nod, she has been asked to go in and relieve the star player, to give her a rest. So she steps on the field, she hopes and prays for the ball to switch field and come to her side, after all she really wants to show off that new skill she has worked on so hard…..the one she spent hours in the back yard trying to reproduce off the brick wall on the side of the house. She gets a few touches, but not the big ones she was hoping for, but she hustled, and ran and waited. Then, the big moment was over, the star player was rested and ready to come back in, and Suzie’s big moment ended as quickly as it started. So back to the bench she goes to cheer on others playing the game.
This is where youth sports has lost perspective, and I don’t say that in a “let’s give everyone a trophy” tone.
Youth sports has become a business. If they create big leagues or clubs and promise big results, then the Suzie’s of the world will come. Their parents will pay top dollar if getting Suzie on that elite team is what will help her progress and get better. But the fallacy is in the philosophy. The directors of these “elite” programs tell you that Suzie doesn’t mind sitting the bench because she is so happy to be on this great team and learn, and that playing in the game is not important to her. There are many issues with that model. One is the idea that these directors load these teams to full rosters, more kids than can possibly see adequate game time, because, well let’s face it, the more that play the more that pay. The second issue is an adult determining for a child that “they won’t mind” sitting the bench. When indeed Suzie does mind, she cries about it and worries about it. She practices hard, she is always there, and the reality is she will likely never see much playing time.
This trend in youth sports today is to continually develop a program that everyone will “want” to be a part of. A perfect example is the new Elite National leagues being formed. This is to drive parents and players to be willing to pay more, and be more invested. But when that loses steam there will be a double elite league, a diamond league, you name it and they will develop it.
The real problem here is that the emotional and physical development of the child is being ignored. Children do not engage in sports to merely practice, they engage to “play.” In recent work by Ryan and Deci (2000) it was discovered that diminished satisfaction lowered motivation and psychological well being in children. Hallowell’s (2011) work on play has demonstrated the need for children to “engage” in the playful activities them emulate.
When we ask a child to practice, to work hard to learn new skills and we do not allow them to engage in the playful experience that brought them to the game in the first place, then they lose.
Let’s think about what we know about cognitive development. We utilize repetition, precision, focus on certain smaller skills that build to larger ones. We give students practice tests, homework, group assignments, and then ultimately they are able to demonstrate what they know and learned through formal assessments and tests. Yet, in this elite league play mentality in youth sports we practice finite skills, we allow practice scenarios and small sided games, but when it comes to the final assessment to demonstrate what they learned we make them sit and watch.
This article is not even about mandatory play time, or league policies. It’s about adult ethics. Stop building teams twice the size they should be so that more revenue can be made. Stop placing kids on competitive level teams just because their parents are willing to pay the large fee. Build smaller teams, focus on play and growth. Let them utilize what they learned at practice in a game time situation, let them learn to work through their mistakes and make decisions on the fly. Place them where they developmentally belong, allow them to flourish and build confidence on a team and in a league that suits their skill level.
In watching this elite league craze develop, my assessment is that skills are not getting better, but players are getting lost. They lose a love for the game because adults are making poor decisions for the sake of revenue. Many will read this and believe it’s a fluffy article about making all kids feel good. The truth is not all kids are good at certain sports, but they may have fun doing it. There are thousands of recreational leagues that those children could play on, have fun and learn a lot, yet we fail to honestly assess their skill for fear of losing their large travel ball fee.
If parents want their children to play better, faster, harder then simply let them play!! The cost of the program yields little results in relation to the output of the player. The player develops under sound tutelage and hours of playing the game.
Stop buying into the guilt that if you don’t pay $5,000 for the elite travel team your child won’t be as good as the others, and that allowing your child to sit on a bench of 22 girls and watch the game is better for her development then playing on one of those “low level” teams. And club directors, stop building teams around dollars and build it around players. Make teams where kids can succeed, but most importantly where they can PLAY. We claim to aim for success yet we teach compliance, compliance with watching instead of playing, compliance for playing where others say we NEED to be, and compliance for poor ethics of athletic leaders.
Not every child deserves a trophy for their performance, they all have different skills and learn at a different pace. As a coach I do agree that playing time should be earned, but I also know that if I only intend to play 7 kids based on their skill level, then I should only take 7 kids on my team. Compulsory playing rules make it hard on other kids who do work hard and also deserve to stay in the game but must be pulled to make time for the 40 kids on the bench. Why must we build a maximum roster full of kids, if only half are competitively ready? Why not give them the opportunity to play elsewhere, stop taking their money to make them watch!!!
Hallowell, E.M. (2011). Shine: using brain science to the best from your people. Boston, MA.: Harvard Business Review Press.
Ryan, Richard M.; Deci, Edward L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, Vol 55(1), Jan 2000, 68-78
By Dr. Brandy Kamm, PhD
Dr. Brandy Kamm, PhD, is a higher education faculty member, doctoral research supervisor and nationally licensed soccer coach.