Chalk Talk: The Youth Sport Epidemic

Many of us have fond and vivid memories of playing sports growing up. Some of the best memories of sport come not from organized, traveling or AAU leagues either but from school yard games and backyard pick-up. Riding bikes to meet up and play with friends or just strangers who wanted to play was where hearty competition would thrive. Despite there being no future implication in a win or a loss in a 3v3 basketball game in your buddy’s driveway, the investment and level to which you pushed yourself was unmatched.

I remember on weekends watching about an hour of the And 1 Mix tape tour and then immediately going outside and practicing ball handling. This would be repeated and then tested when it came to game time. Playing just to play seems like a lost art. Emulating the moves and motion and mannerism of the greats was something I prided myself on. We would craft wiffle ball lineups filled with our favorite players and have to mimic their stance. If they were lefty, we would hit opposite. Each lineup had to have at least 3 opposite hitters, that was a rule. If you picked a pitcher that only threw a fastball and a slider that is all you could throw unless you made an imaginary substitution to your bullpen. This was how my friends and I spent weekends, school breaks and summer vacations. Sure we played in organized leagues and competed at a pretty high level but I truly think this kind of free play fosters the type of competitor you are.

At the park in a pick-up game or in the backyard no one is holding your hand and telling you have to play. You aren’t pressured in knowing your parents paid thousands of dollars for you to play. You are only out there playing because you chose to. You have full investment in the game to the point that you are the commissioner - you make the rules. Off the roof is only double, or play to 11 win by two, no 3 pointers, call your own fouls. This kind of control makes the buy-in that much greater.

I’ve coached at the youth and high school level for the last 5 years. A handful of our interviewees from What’s Next have also gotten into coaching. It has been great as I’ve expressed in some other posts. It keeps you connected to the game, provides some additional income and allows you to be around and help kids. Anecdotally for me, but also founded in a lot of research is that what I described in the first paragraph is now quite rare. It is not common place anymore for kids to be spending hours upon hours outside free playing. They simply don’t have the time to and it is really to no fault of their own. The rush to specialize in a single sport has swept across the country like a wildfire. You can travel anywhere and see kids as young as 7 playing on travel teams or AAU teams titled as “elite”. They are full year commitments for thousands of dollars. They are part of a branding that is big business for adults - usually folks who are not very credentialed in the field anyway and who also don’t have the best interest of the kids in mind.

Just in my current town alone it seems like there is a father coached “traveling” baseball team in every sub-neighborhood of town. The idea to specialize in one sport so early and pay huge bucks to do so is not factually based. It is perpetuated by a myth that this will somehow advance your child to be able to play at the next level, get a scholarship, outshine the kid next door. This culture breeds a handful of negative consequences for kids. For starters, it keeps out a ton of quality players, players who want to play but simply can't afford it. Low income and even middle class families are priced out of youth sports. It is a sad reality. Those kids either wind up not playing at all or playing in now poorly organized and poorly run recreational leagues that face a host of problems, one being their very existence as a league. When you start to look at the large percentage of professional athletes, across all leagues, most of them played multiple sports growing up, even in high school- Lebron James, Aaron Judge, Bryce Harper to name just a few. It allows you to be more functional as an athlete.

If you are a star on the soccer team and a bench player on the basketball team you learn different roles and how to navigate both of those spaces much better than only ever being a star player. You work different muscles and adaptive responses. One of the most harmful consequences of early specialization is injury from overuse. You pound and pound on the same muscles all year long and as a result there has been a major spike in athletes getting Tommy John surgery at an earlier age as well as getting ACL surgery. In addition to injury another consequence has been the high rate of burnout. Kids are feeling so overwhelmed with pressure that by the age of 13 they are quitting. They are either quitting sports altogether or they are quitting organized sports and taking on more alternative sports like skate boarding, surfing and biking. This lends it self to some of the allure I mentioned before about playing pick-up games. Skating and biking are player controlled, they are paced by the kids and the kids make the rules. There is very little if any adult interjection. No adult is controlling playing time or applying pressure when you skateboard. There is an element of freedom there that if you played and trained for soccer all year long playing on 3 different teams that you wouldn't have.

Even kids that buy-in to your team are still paralyzed by pressure from their parents. That is one thing I've noticed intently over the last couple years. You would think if a player is only playing one sport that they are fully committed and show up daily to work their hardest. What I've seen is the exact opposite. Kids are drained and unmotivated and it makes coaching them so much more challenging because we are continuously working on the buy-in and culture and less on instruction.

A phrase I learned from Crossfit that I think applies is "constantly varied" or "routine is the enemy". It holds true here in a traditional sport without a varied repertoire of sport and type of practice not only is there and increased risk for injury but it is also pulling kids aware from things they would otherwise like if they weren't forced to commit like a professional at the age of 7.

Where does that leave us from here, kids are getting hurt, dropping out at alarming rates, what can be done? I think parent education is key and again has become a bigger part of coaching. Many times parents do have the best in mind for their kids but their execution is poor and unsound. They over-schedule and vicariously enter the sport lives of their kids without permission or qualifications. It is hard to convince a parent that you went on to play division 1 athletics because of all the backyard and pick-up style games you played. Not that that is entirely true but it definitely taught me to compete, have short term memory and play for no other reason then because I truly wanted to.

Coaching has been about trying to replicate those feelings and circumstances for this generation. It feels good when I drive around and see parks filled with kids or a football game going on in the street or on the front lawn. It isn't often but I do know two things; one, those kids chose to participate in this game, no one manipulated them to or bargained with them with more Xbox time for going to practice. And two, they are having fun, using their imagination, competitiveness and collaborative skills to create, self-assess, correct and then give it their all. It is most visible in unstructured spaces that kids give it their all, literally they sell out, play without fear of failure all because their isn't any parental pressure, they will still have their friends and they can just restart the game and play again and again. How can we do a better job at creating a fearless culture? After all, the aforementioned traits and skills are ones that everyone wants to see our youth acquire. Especially from a generation that is saying this next generation is void of these life skills yet ironically they are amiss in realizing that they are creating it. I don't have the exact answer but I know that it is not telling your son or daughter that in first grade they are going to have to choose between soccer or basketball and that's it.

Chalk Talk is a weekly What's Next column by Anthony Cinelli, one of our founders. It will be published every Monday morning. Anthony is currently a mental health counselor and baseball coach in New Jersey.

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