A Tipping Point in Changing the Culture of Youth Sport?

In the last month I’ve been thinking and reading about the idea of equal playing time in youth sports (click here and here). Based on the evidence, I’m convinced that equal playing time should be mandatory up until the age of 12. Following, all youth sport organizations and associations should adopt this policy at ALL levels of play–in house, recreational, travel, and competitive. Regardless of the level of play, kids are still kids who should all have the opportunity to develop, grow, and experience all the joys and benefits sports has the opportunity to impart. I’ve come to believe in the last month that short of having a strong equal playing time policy, parents and coaches will structure youth sport to meet the needs of their own goals, needs, and desires rather than what is best for all kids.

I applaud USA Hockey for leading the way constructing a better model for youth sports. The USA Hockey Youth Council just voted to eliminate their national championship for the Peewees–the 12 & Under level. USA Hockey has recently rolled out the American Development Model (ADM)– “a tool  that will ensure every kid will have the same chance to succeed.” The mission and purpose of ADM is clearly focused on countering (and hopefully reversing) the detrimental forces of the performance/win at all costs focus and professionalization of youth sport. The philosophy and ABC’s of ADM is evidence-based, and the “E” of the ABC’s is….equal playing time! Finally at least one youth sport organization appears to taking some cues from sport science scholars!

On a similar note, the Boston Globe ran an interesting piece titled “What happened to losing?” which outlines how youth sport has lost the true meaning of competition (which is “to strive or strive with, not against”). When I worked at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendelson Center for Sport and Character, the co-director and my colleague David Light Shields, was working on a book about “True Competition”. He has since finished and I recommend you read it as it is accessible and instructive for why and how to change the culture of youth sports-True Competition: A Guide to Pursuing Excellence in Sport and Society. Check out the accompanying website TrueCompetition.org and sign up for the newsletter.

I hope these and other efforts by those who care about the health and well being of all youth athletes provide a start of a Gladwell-esque Tipping Point in changing the culture of youth sport to a primary focus on fun and development, rather than winning and performance.

3 Replies to “A Tipping Point in Changing the Culture of Youth Sport?”

  1. Terrific points here about letting kids enjoy sports when they’re young by stressing skill development over winning. At some point elite youth athletes may need to go to a more highly-charged environment, but not at the outset. The biggest challenge is convincing enough parents to move away from the current ethos of competition. Especially if they cling to the delusion that their kids can get college scholarships by “learning” to win early.

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  2. Nicole, I just wanted to applaud you on your strong stand. As a part of the classes I have taught over the years in psych of coaching, sport psych and sport soc. I have addressed the issue of developmental appropriateness (or lack thereof) and “competitive” sports prior to the age of 12 and came to the same conclusions regarding competition as well as playing time. I’m so happy to see that perspective out there in a “non-scholarly” way. I also, just completed Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” in which I think he brings up another important reason (that of age cut off dates) why equal playing time up until at least 12 is imperative.

    As a parent, though, I might add (even with a Ph.D. in sport psych) that it is extremely difficult not to get caught up in the “win” attitude ever present on field of play. I’m grateful I have the tools to talk myself down :). Unfortunately, I cannot say that for the vast majority of parents out there.

    Thanks for the great blog, which I (and my class) read religiously!

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    1. Michelle,
      Thanks for your feedback. One thing I try to do with this blog is disseminate and distill research in a way that is palatable to the lay person. This issue about equal playing time is one I’m going to continue to push and advocate for in the year to come. -nml

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