It is no secret that our society views professional athletes as royalty, treating them as modern-day deities. The media shows glamorous images of the lifestyles of professional athletes, enticing images, luring, daring others to attempt to find this holy grail of athletics for themselves. This deification of professional athletes, among other things, has had major consequences for youth sports. Parents see the potential financial advantages that having an athletic child can bring in the form of college scholarships and professional salaries. Parents have pushed for, and gotten, more competitive teams, more all star teams, more travel teams, all for younger and younger children, many of whom have barely learned to tie their shoes. These same kids are specializing in one sport as soon as they can walk in hopes of scholarships or fame or fortune. What no one seems to have stopped to consider is if what we are doing is really going to benefit our children in the long run.
According to the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS), “49% of children do not have the basic skills necessary when they enter organized sport” (1). Combine that with the fact that young children are being put into sports situations that they are usually not emotionally, psychologically or cognitively ready for, in addition to not being physically ready, and it is no wonder that the drop out rate from sports is around 70% by age 13 (1). Whether due to burnout, injury, lack of interest, or the structure of the system, the fact is that a huge majority of children are choosing to leave sports behind as they hit adolescence. They are also potentially leaving behind the wonderful benefits that being physically active brings. This is a signal that something is not working in the current youth sports structure.
One area in need of drastic change is programs offered for young participants, those who developmentally are not ready for the more formal “adult” structure of sports that most organizations offer. Parents have pushed for programs for their youngest children, but developmentally, children are not capable of understanding strategy and all of the more complex issues involved in team sports until around the age of 12 (2). Yet many parents, coaches and organizations, through the programs they offer, seem to expect this of children as young as 4. The Citizenship Through Sport Alliance (CTSA) echoed this sentiment in their 2005 National Youth Sports Report Card, giving community-based youth sports programs a D when it comes to child-centered philosophy (3). A child-centered philosophy should be top priority of youth sports organizations and parents should demand no less.
While encouraging physical activity is important for all children, it is essential that it is done in a developmentally appropriate, child-centered way. Young children can still participate in and enjoy youth sports, but it needs to be done on their terms. Programs that serve youth should be modified to the individual physical, emotional, and psychological levels of each age group and each individual. For adults, this means thinking outside the box when it comes to sports and realizing that it is OK for us to change the rules and change the game to make a better fit with young participants. As children get older, more and more elements of the “adult” version can be added, but only after the building blocks of the basics are in place, so that all children will have the basic skills necessary to fully participate in sports.
Change does not come easy to most of us, but working together, parents have the power to change youth sports. Get involved with the youth sports organization in your town and be adamant that they offer developmentally appropriate programs. If the organization is not willing to listen, you can always start your own. Below you will find some helpful ways in which sports can be modified to better meet the needs of participants.
(1) National Alliance for Youth Sport. (n.d.). Smart Start Development Programs. Retrieved January 31, 2006 from http://www.nays.org/IntMain.cfm?Page=56&Cat=9&CFID=842094&CFTOKEN=238184... 
(2) Coakley, J. (2004). Sports in Society: Issues & Controversies (8th ed.). Boston: McGraw Hill.
(3) Citizenship Through Sport Alliance. (2005). 2005 National Youth Sports Report Card. Retrieved January 31, 2005 from http://www.sportsmanship.org/News/1105%20Report%20Card-Fgrade.pdf