Youth Sports: Back to Basics



As a parent, a coach, and a longtime athlete, I think about this topic often: why do we sign up our kids for sports? Most parents enroll our kids in sports at some point in their childhood. In fact, 45 million American kids play sports. It’s all giggles and carefree until we’re swept into the vortex that is games and private lessons and before we know it, we’re missing our sister’s wedding for a tournament. With increasingly privatized and expensive clubs, it seems that less are participating “for the love of the game” and more are feeling the pressure of the competitive youth sports scene. Sometimes we look past why youth sports exist in the first place and what we should look for in raising our kids through athletics. Some parents see talent in their young child in a certain sport and feel pressured to guide them down a single sport path; sometimes the competitive and specializing mindset works out and the six-year-old soccer star ends up with a full ride to her dream college. But we are learning more about the dangers of early specialization and the path to burnout.

Here are some ideas to challenge and empower us to think about a path to transformed youth sports, what to look for, and why we bring our kids to the athletic experience in the first place:

To build not only better athletes but better people.

When we sign up our kids for sports, it’s a tool for making them better people. When a young child talks to a trusting coach, she learns to communicate her feelings. When a boy learns how to lose gracefully, he learns humility. He also learns resilience. They learn to believe in themselves when odds are against them. They learn that people count on them to show up on time. That one time that they fall on the starting line, they learn that there’s another race. They learn that when they show up consistently, they’ll improve. When we sign up our kids for sports, this character development is what we are signing up for, and finding a program that shares this philosophy is important for the development of the whole child. Becoming a better athlete is a byproduct of all these qualities that make them a better human.

To give our kids a chance to take healthy risks.

My young daughter has been in a toddler gymnastics class for a couple years now. She loves it. I mean who knows, maybe she’ll want to be a gymnast down the road, but likely not. We do it because it’s fun for her, she gets to move her body and play with her peers. Just recently she’s been going through a stage where she’s nervous to go to class. Last week, my husband told her that it’s a “healthy risk” and he explained to her what it meant. He told her that sometimes it feels really good to be brave when you’re afraid of something and then you’re proud of yourself afterwards. Last week, she was nervous and we talked a lot about being a “brave girl” and that I would be there close by until she was comfortable. It didn’t take long for her to feel comfortable and eventually she was in her groove and so proud of herself afterward. She just wanted to know that I recognized her fears and that they were okay. Let’s encourage our kids to take healthy risks so they know what they’re capable of and what it feels like to be a little uncomfortable–because that’s where the magic of growth happens.

To show them that it’s okay if you’re not good at something right away.

For some reason there’s this unwritten rule that you’re supposed to be good at something right away. Says who?! Youth sports are so competitive now days, often with the focus on elite training, that it seems it’s easy for kids to throw in the towel if they’re not good right away. In fact, by age 15, 80% of kids have quit organized teams. That’s just silly. Kids should be able to try any sport they want and grow at the rate that’s appropriate for them. Every learning curve is okay. Some kids are quick learners and natural athletes. Some kids take things slow and are not out there to become youth elites. An appropriate youth sports approach should embrace all learning curves and styles.

To give them a chance to have ownership and intrinsic motivation.

There is nothing more satisfying than a kid who says, “I did it!” Whether it’s climbing a tree, building a castle, or finishing a race, we own that feat at every age. It’s not that she won or was the best, but that by her own heart and willpower, she completed a challenge. When a child tackles something, she develops ownership over her body and her mind. She has the tools to accomplish greatness. Motivation is built here and there’s no stopping an empowered kid with momentum and confidence.

To give them a childhood.

Perhaps most importantly, we introduce our kids to sports as one way to have an awesome childhood. I firmly believe that, along with other outlets and activities, participation in sports can be the recipe for beautiful growing years. We sign them up to build the foundations for an active life. While it’s great that a select few will play in high school and college, this should not be the goal. We should aim to put them on a path for character exploration, broad participation, balance, and health. Sports should be a tool to enhance childhood, not to take away from this precious time.