Deconstructing Youth Sports

It is time to examine organized youth sports as an institution to help safeguard the great work so many dedicated coaches are carrying out. There is increasing evidence that participation in youth sports as we know it today may come at a high price.

Regrettably, we may be coaching the greatness out of our children. At a young age, many children are put in an environment where almost all decisions are made for them by referees, coaches, and parents. This has major ramifications that may be causing a sociological crisis in youth sport.

For example, the epidemic of anterior crucial ligament (ACL) injuries in female athletes has been blamed on several things; estrogen, which causes laxity in the tendons and ligaments (to help girls later during childbirth), severe hip-to-knee angles/ratios, and a host of other causes.

Researchers are baffled, while coaches and trainers approach the task of injury-free training with a host of prevention techniques. That is because they are searching for what appears to be a developmental deficiency, when in fact ACL injuries may have a sociological genesis.

Consider, for instance, that kids no longer “play”. You need only visit a soccer practice to observe this phenomenon. Children are told what to do, how to do it, and when to do it by adults who, in many cases, may be inexperienced in working with children.

Children are no longer climbing trees, exploring meadows, catching fireflies or building tree houses. Children’s play is regimented, uniform (and in uniform), on lined fields (no thinking outside of the box), boring and with no shortage of supervisors to watch over them. The sad reality is that the natural wonderment and genius in every child to evolve his athletic prowess is undergoing a troubling arrested development.

Another cause of the ACL injury epidemic is that kids are not learning how to decelerate their bodies in the way that nature intended – there are cones and whistles for that.

Children are no longer climbing trees, exploring meadows, catching fireflies or building tree houses.

We tell them how to zig and zag with special technical names for each move. This precision drilling, which forces children to conform to a sport ethic, is in fact part of the problem. Play and the many intangibles that contribute to it, such as chaos and improvisation, may in fact be the missing link to solving the ACL epidemic. Unfortunately, nature’s own mechanisms are not activated, so children are left vulnerable at the knees – the center of gravity of the leg.

The crisis of adult controlled youth sports participation has more than just physical manifestations. Sports are mechanisms of socialization for youth, and therefore, the way sports are rendered affects who and what our children become.

All around us a rebellion against organized activities is evident. The emergence of extreme sports such as stunt bike riding and skateboarding, which by their very nature do not involve adult interaction or supervision, are more popular than ever. In these sports, young athletes are encouraged to be as creative as they are daring.

Traditional sports, however, have become increasingly more competitive and predictable, with an emphasis on drills, rules, scoring and ultimately, WINNING.

Where are all the center midfielders?

In developing countries, children play sports such as soccer in the streets. No adult structure and formalization corrupts the purity of the street environment. What irony. When left to their own devices, these children negotiate everything from potholes and bad traffic, to low light and stray dogs. They become expert problem solvers with creative solutions for maintaining the action. No one suffers the stigma of being on the bench. Instead, one goal is made large and the other very small to accommodate talent levels. They learn statesmanship and diplomacy and how to interact in positive ways rather than alienating any one player whose absence might cause a small sided game to cease in many cases. Isn’t that what sports are supposed to be teaching our kids?

It is not surprising that during the last few FIFA World Cups, the USA has been hard pressed to find a home grown center midfielder. (This position is also known as the creative midfielder.) Today, the United States has its own professional league, and joining the MSL (Major League Soccer) is the goal of many American youth players. Interestingly, MLS data regarding team rosters clearly shows that most teams occupy the creative midfield position with foreigners, particularly those from developing countries. We are coaching the greatness and the originality out of our youth!

It is time for what noted author Jay Coakely would call a “pleasure and participation model”. There is a crisis and powerful tools are needed for engaging athletes in a way that is keeping with origins of sport. If your youth athlete is in need of some confidence building and self attainment, empower them by offering freedom, not structure; by emphasizing creativity, not competition.

No one would advocate the abolishment of all organized youth sports; they are too important in getting and keeping young people active and involved with their peers. After all, no one would say that the welfare of youth wasn’t the ultimate goal of any of these wonderful organizations. There simply needs to be a shift in the philosophy that drives the programs and curriculums.

Coaches... have the power to not only influence team cohesion but the proper team climate.

That is why all coaches who make a difference everyday should remember that they have the power to not only influence team cohesion but also the power to create the proper team climate. This means creating an interactive setting where an athlete’s ideas are taken seriously. When a coach alters a lesson plan as the direct result of an athlete’s suggestion, that athlete will often take ownership of the practice and perform the drill in a superior way. This step eventually leads to them taking responsibility for their performance on game day. Coaches should not focus only on drills that involve scoring and going to goal. Instead, they might de-emphasize competition and reward non-traditional, under appreciated forms of athleticism such as originality, creativity, rhythm, coordination, and vision.

Some children are more influenced by coaches than any other figure; and so it is incumbent upon the coach to deconstruct some of the negative patters that characterize Western trends in youth sport. The heart of this issue speaks to the true power of coaching; and that, simply put, is that children use sports as cultural mechanisms of socialization. Therefore, the specific way in which sports are rendered (by coaches) affects who and what our children become.

Parents can also foster this type of atmosphere by letting their kids play in unstructured, “pick-up” games in the back yard with siblings and neighbors, or even at the park with other kids that they find there. Let them make up their own games, bend or modify rules, choose teams, and settle dispute s with little or no adult intervention. Observe carefully to make sure that no child is being hurt or bullied, but outside of that, keep out of it. It will teach a multitude of lessons without the kids even knowing it.

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