In youth sports adults fill many roles. They are league administrators, coaches, officials, cheerleaders, supporters, chauffeurs, and spectators. To those roles they bring their adult view of the world. When the adult view of what is the most important aspect of youth sports conflicts with what children think, the experience can sour and be less than beneficial for the children. It is important that adults involved in youth sports take time to consider what the kids want and really try to make youth sports about the kids rather than about the adult ego. Maybe then we will see the dropout rate decline and see more and more youth turned on to physical activity.
Adults Want . . .
When adults are in charge as in organized youth sports, the result is different than when kids are in charge. Adults want rules and regulations; standardized competition; strict compliance to the rules; formal positions; scores to be kept; control over schedule; control over who plays (1). Basically, in organized sport adults control every aspect of competition, except of course how the kids play, and they would probably control that too if they could.
The adult perspective brings with it an emphasis on the product, winning, as opposed to the process, learning and developing skills. Some adults even feel their moral worth depends upon the outcome of their child’s performance (1), while still others exploit their children in order to gratify their own needs (2). Taken together, all of these factors can add up to a whole lot of stress and anxiety heaped on youngsters who say they just want to have fun. Organized youth sport from the adult perspective is a reflection of adult organized sport. This is fine when adults are participating, but children have different needs than adults.
Kids Want . . .
One main reason kids play sports is to have fun (3, 4). Other reasons they give are to develop skills and competence (3, 4), fair play (5), action, and personal involvement (1). Winning is not high on any list of reasons given by youth as to why they play sports. In fact, one survey of 10 to 18 year olds found that both boys and girls wanted less emphasis on winning (5). Of course, the motivations do change with age (5) and skill level. Players who could be considered highly skilled tend to be more concerned with winning (1). There is no doubt this concern is learned from the emphasis placed upon it by the adults involved.
The contradictions between the two groups are clear. An emphasis on winning means that the action will be limited to the most highly skilled and could erode good sportsmanship and fair play. When the outcome becomes the most important thing, a “win-at-all-costs” mentality can take hold, replacing the fun with stress and anxiety. It is no wonder the dropout rate from sports is so high in adolescence.
Adults can learn from how children organize themselves when they are the ones in charge during free play. During the sports children play informally in the backyard or at recess, it is not hard to observe what is important to the children. Although there are exceptions, kids usually want play to be fair, be involved in the action, have the play be competitive, and have the play involve a lot of scoring. They are not afraid to change the rules when it suits them, and player-control over the sporting situation requires that they be able to handle conflicts. The lack of interference from an official or coach provides ample opportunity to develop their creativity (1). A colleague of mine who coaches girls’ middle school basketball once commented how her players lacked creativity. They were so used to having the play drawn up for them that they did not know how to move off of the ball.
Youth sports provide a wonderful way for children to have fun, develop skills and be active. Adults, especially parents, are essential for getting kids involved in sports. However, if the youth sports experience is to be the best it can be for all participants, not just the highly skilled ones, it is necessary that adults change their perspective and realign it to what the kids want.
Related Articles on other Websites
Winning! How Important Is It in Youth Sports? – by Michael A. Clark, Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, Michigan State University
Cooperation, Competition, and Kids – from Penn State University
(1) Coakley, J. (2004). Sports in Society: Issues & Controversies (8th ed.). Boston: McGraw Hill.
(2) Anderson, J. C., Funk, J. B., Elliot, R., & Smith, P. H. (2003). Parental support and pressure and children’s extracurricular activities: Relationships with amount of involvement and affective experience of participation. Applied Developmental Psychology, 24, 241-257. Retrieved December 5, 2005 from Science Direct database.
(3) Siedentop, D. (2001). Introduction to Physical Education, Fitness, and Sport (4th ed). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.
(4) Pangrazi, R. P. (2001). Dynamic Physical Education for Elementary School Children (13th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
(5) Clark, M. A. (n.d.). Winning! How Important Is It in Youth Sports? Retrieved November 11, 2004 from http://www.coachjerry.com/winning.htm