How to Change to Culture of Youth Sport?

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?

More Thoughts on Equal Playing Time in Youth Sports

Thank you for everyone who weighed in and took the time to provide insight and opinions on equal playing time in youth sports for a previous blog. It is clear playing time is a pressing issue across all sectors of youth sport and parents, coaches, and administrators alike are struggling to make informed decisions.

Existing and emerging evidence from child development, pediatric sports medicine, sport psychology, sport sociology, and moral development seems to point to the idea that equal playing time is imperative for children up to age 12 (and some would argue age 14).

From my observations and interactions with youth sport stakeholders the debate over playing time starts with differing views on the purpose of youth sport and the tension between winning/being competitive and athlete development/fun/enjoyment. I reject the notion that winning, athlete development and fun/enjoyment can’t simultaneously be achieved. This dichotomous thinking is part of the problem in organized youth sport.

Adults who run, organize, and coach youth sport consider many factors when making decisions about playing time and arguably factors change in weight as the child gets older. The graphic in Figure 1:  Playing Time Considerations illustrate this complexity.

I’ve outlined EFFORT in red as this is one of the few factors that a child can control. Giving full effort in practice and games regardless of the situation is a very important life lesson that can be taught and learned through participation in sport.

A father in a recent sport parent workshop asked me about the danger of “teaching children to be  mediocre” by awarding equal playing time. His point was that a child who didn’t work hard or give full effort would automatically be awarded the same playing time as a child who was working hard, and that if playing time weren’t used as “the carrot” (i.e., you work hard, you get to play) that kids wouldn’t work hard. It was a good question.

To answer his question used evidence and borrowed some wisdom from my colleague Clark Power, Ph.D., a scholar in moral development and Director of the Play Like a Champion Educational Series at the University of Notre Dame. Power argues playing time is not a reward for displaying virtue, it is a means for developing virtue. I also pointed out the carrot approach is a problematic way of using playing time. First, children need to be taught that working hard is an inherent part of sports, skill development, and life. Children should want to work hard because it is inherently enjoyable, as hard work can lead to improvement, satisfaction, sense of self worth, accomplishment, and many more positive outcomes. These intrinsic motives for giving full effort will lead to a much greater likelihood of long term participation than using playing time as an extrinsic reward that can be taken away or awarded by adults.

Second, up until age 10-11, developmentally children cannot discern between effort and ability. They equate effort with being good at something. Therefore, under an unequal playing time system a child who gives full effort but does not get to play, is likely to think he is not good at that sport. Based on evidence in sport psychology, perception of competence is one of the biggest predictors of enjoyment and sustained participation. The take home message here:  a child who believes he is incompetent because he is sitting on the bench even thought he believes he’s given effort in practices, will be much more likely to drop out. If he drops out before he can understand cognitively that effort and ability are not always the same, and that effort is a virtue, then he will not reap the developmental and health benefits which can be accrued through sport participation.

A great deal more evidence than what I’ve presented here exists in support of an “equal playing time through age 12” youth sport policy, but this is an evidence-based food for thought starting point for youth sport stakeholders to consider. For more information on youth sports visit the Minnesota Youth Sport Research Consortium.

A Question About Equal Playing Time in Youth Sports

Sidelined

I’ve been asked to give an evidence-based presentation to a youth sport association on equal playing time. I’m interested in what you think about this issue. Here are the questions I have:

1. Why should youth sports have/not have equal playing time?

2. Who should decide?

3. If you believe in equal playing time, at what age should equal playing time cease?

If you have solutions , ideas of opinions, please leave a comment.