This week I talked with a local writer, Meagan Frank, who is writing a book about youth sport. She asked some great questions and as a sport parent she sees the toxic climate that permeates some youth sport contexts, and wants to do something about it. She read my blog about my thoughts on how the professionalized model of youth sport won’t change unless college sport is reformed. I think that until athletic scholarships aren’t the means to an end for sport participation for some (most?) kids and their parents, that the professionalization of youth sport will continue (i.e., year round training, early sport specialization, travel teams that cut kids at younger and younger ages).
What would youth sport look like if millions of families weren’t pursuing a college athletic scholarship? Would more athletes play only for the love of the game? Would they have more fun? Would they enjoy their experience more? Would they worry less about what team and at what level they play? Would the parents yell and scream less on the sidelines? Would fewer kids get burned out or chronically injured? Would fewer kids drop out of sport?
Meagan asked me one question that has stuck in my mind: If you could pick one thing to change about youth sports that would make a difference, what would it be? I had to pause a moment because there are so MANY things to change. I wanted to pick the the least common denominator, the one policy that I think would effect the greatest change.
My answer: Mandate equal playing time for all kids up until the age of 14.
In a previous blog post on playing time in youth sport I specified a model of “Playing Time Considerations” which included the many factors that go into making decisions about playing time. In that blog I included a quote by a colleague, “playing time is not a reward for displaying virtue, it is a means for developing virtue.” Playing time is also a means for developing skill and mental toughness. You cannot improve if you sit on the bench. You also don’t develop if you quit because you never play, or you are cut because the coach doesn’t think you are good enough to play…and you haven’t hit puberty yet. Equal playing time is crucial up until puberty so that early and late developers get an equal chance to DEVELOP, play and have fun.
By creating an equal playing time policy in all sports, at all levels of play (i.e., developmental leagues, rec, in house, elite travel teams), it would change the culture of youth sport. The culture would be more about developing skill for ALL kids. Even on elite travel teams where all the kids are highly skilled and talented, some kids still play more than others (although they pay the same very high fees to play on the team). This does not seem right or fair or good for psychological, social, physical or moral development. All teams would strive to win, but at least all the kids would have an equal role in the outcome.
What do you think?