A New Canadian Report Holds Lessons For American Youth Sports
By Doug Abrams
In early May, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) wrote a series of articles about Sport & Belonging, a new report that spotlights excesses that mark many youth sports programs in that nation. The report’s influence should not stop at the border because similar excesses mark many youth sports programs in the United States.
In both nations, many sports programs conduct travel or elite teams for players at younger and younger ages. Programs ramp up the pressure by creating longer seasons, and by dismissing greater encroachments on family life. Programs tolerate cutting or benching of youngsters judged less talented by coaches who are ill-equipped to make such profound judgments about elementary school children. Pressure leads some parents and coaches toward confrontation, violence, or other misconduct. About 70% of youth leaguers quit by the age of 13, often burned out from too much adult pressure imposed too early.
Pressures on Youth Leaguers
The new report was prepared by Vital Signs, in partnership with the True Sport Foundation. (Vital Signs is a network of more than 190 community foundations devoted to enhancing the quality of life throughout Canada; the True Sport Foundation advances fairness, excellence, inclusion, and fun as the core values of sport for Canadians of all ages.) The report’s researched findings about the nation’s youth sports programs include these:
“3 out of 4 children and youth ages 5-17 are active in sport, but participation rates peak at age 10 to 13 and then decline steadily and dramatically with age”;
“In Canada and globally, 5- to 19-year-olds say lack of enjoyment, feeling they are not good enough to play and an increase in family and intrapersonal stress were the most common reasons for dropping out of sport”;
“[T]he most important factors in sport drop-out rates include lack of fun, stress, too much competition and negative coach or parental behavior.”
Sport & Belonging also reported that a bulk of Canadians believe that the nation’s youth sports programs give short shrift to values. “4/5 believe that promoting positive values in youth should be a priority for sport in Canada, but fewer than 3/5 believe community sport currently reinforces them.” Not only that, but “almost three-quarters (73%) of Canadians say children’s sport has become too focused on winning at the exclusion of fun and fair play.”
Pressures on Parents
CBC Sports writer Jamie Strashin places much of the blame on an environment that leads kids as young as eight to quit because “they think they’re not good enough” when they are cut from a travel or elite team that is driven by “the hyper-competitive environment that lords over most youth sports.” A North Vancouver youth soccer coach told CBC News writer Gavin Fisher that scheduling too many practices and games can kill many kids’ passion for sport by the time they reach their early teen years. “If your child is playing more games than an NHL player,” says the coach, “you seriously have the balance wrong.”
Sport & Belonging also finds that youth sports can exact a heavy toll on Canadian parents themselves. Despite the demonstrated benefits of lifelong physical exercise, sports “[p]articipation rates for adults are dropping in every province,” and “7 out of 10 Canadians aged 15 and older . . . do NOT participate” actively in sports at all. Among the nation’s adults, the shift “from player to spectator at amateur events . . . almost doubled from 24% to 40%” from 2006 to 2010.
A suburban Toronto physician offered Strashin this reason for the drop: “People often tell me, ‘Doctor, I don’t have time to exercise. I’m too busy taking my kids to sports. . . . The emphasis on kids’ sports has completely wiped out parents’ ability to keep themselves healthy.”
The “Youth Sports Arms Race”
By spotlighting the physical and emotional toll on players and parents, Sport & Belonging raises provocative questions about the potentially harmful effects of the escalating “youth sports arms race.” Many parents today are too young to remember the Arms Race that pitted the United States against the Soviet Union during the Cold War from 1945 until the Soviet state dissolved in 1991. The Arms Race was fueled by mutual fear of falling behind. When one nation built X nuclear warheads, the other nation would respond by building X+. Year after year, each nation would continue stockpiling more armaments to maintain perceived superiority.
Many adults today similarly fear that “if the next town’s team played 40 games for six months last year, our team had better play 50 games for seven months this year, or else our kids will fall behind.” Or that “if Johnny and Susie down the street get expensive private coaching, then our Billy and Mary must get it too, and maybe for more hours a week.”
Youth sports seasons can consume six months or more, plus playoffs and tournaments. “The big machine doesn’t stop eating until it has chewed up all twelve months of the calendar year,” says former NBA player Bob Bigelow, who has spoken about youth sports reform to audiences in the United States and abroad for nearly 30 years.
Many youth teams play too many games. In my 42 years as a youth hockey coach, our teams never played more than about 30 games in seasons that ran from early October to the first week or so in March, including playoffs in many of those years. I doubt that playing 60 games rather than 30 would have produced players twice as talented. The Law of Diminishing Returns suggests that a 53rd game would not have honed skills, but that it would have encouraged burnout, increased the risk of overuse injuries, and intruded unduly on academics and other aspects of family life that the parents also valued.
With about 70% of kids dropping out of sports by the age of 13, our youth hockey program’s negligible or non-existent dropout rates each year (even among teen players) suggested that our robust but reasonable game schedule “kept the fires burning.”
Over-indulgence comes with a price. In his excellent book, Just Let the Kids Play, Bigelow quotes former San Francisco Giants baseball player, Erik Johnson: “I see a lot of burnout. It used to be high school, but now it is ten-, eleven- and twelve-year-old kids. The kids get fried.”
A More Wholesome Balance
The new Vital Signs report comes on the heels of polling data that suggests that many American parents would welcome a more wholesome balance between their children’s organized sports and other aspects of family life. For example, a nationally representative poll of parents, released early in 2014 by espnW and the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program, found that “seven in ten parents have concerns about both the time commitments and rising costs of participation in youth sports.”
The espnW-Aspen poll reaffirms findings reported a year earlier in a poll conducted by the online market research company uSamp at the request of i9 Sports, a youth sports league franchise that stressed one-day weekly commitments, local play without long-distance travel, and focus on fun.
Sixty-eight percent of mothers responding in the uSamp poll said that their children’s youth sports involvement causes stress in their lives; 51% said that this involvement causes stress for the whole family. Twenty-four percent of mothers said that this involvement causes conflict with their significant other, and 24% said that they have resented their children because sports consumes too much time.
Of mothers who reported sports-induced stress, 87% blamed scheduling conflicts, including five-night-a-week commitments. Sixty-seven percent cited cost, and 53% said that their children’s sports deprived the family of holidays, weekends and free time. Seventy-six percent said that they are happy when the sports season is finally over.
A Silent Majority?
Rick Wolff reported on recent shows that, according to the Wall Street Journal and other sources, participation by 6-12-year-olds in team sports has declined since 2008 in the United States. No one reason alone likely explains the decline, but perhaps growing numbers of kids are turning their backs on artificial pressure as growing numbers of parents see youth sports moving in an essentially unhealthy direction.
When a hesitant parent sees other families fueling the youth sports arms race, the parent may feel guilty about being the “only” one who considers saying no. Each family must reach its own decisions about participation, pressure, burnout, and family balance. But polling data suggests that parents who want to slow the arms race have plenty of company. In some places, these parents may even be the Silent Majority.
Postscript. . . . Sport & Belonging also warrants attention because it stresses reforms designed to open sports to children other than ones discussed in this column, who have had the opportunity to participate. These reforms, also described by the Aspen Institute and other thoughtful American sources, include overcoming the chronic under-representation in the youth league ranks of such children as girls, at-risk youth, youth with disabilities, racial and ethnic minorities, and children from low-income families. In the United States and Canada alike, parents and coaches and league administrators should take these reforms seriously.
Sources: Vital Signs, True Sport Foundation, Sport & Belonging 6, 7, 16 (2016); Gavin Fisher, Too Many Practices and Games Are Killing Youths’ Enthusiasm For Sport, Coach Says, CBC News, May 11, 2016; Jamie Strashin, Why Your Kids’ Sports May Be Bad For Your Health, CBC Sports, May 11, 2016; Jamie Strashin, No More Joiners: Why Kids Are Dropping Out of Sports, CBS Sports, May 19, 2016; Bob Bigelow, Tom Moroney & Linda Hall, Just Let the Kids Play: How to Stop Other Adults from Ruining Your Child’s Fun and Success in Youth Sports (2001), pp. 97, 113; Tom Farrey, ESPN Poll: Most Parents Have Concerns About State of Youth Sports, espnW.com (Oct. 13, 2014); i9 Sports Survey – Moms Stress Over Sports (2013); Brooke de Lench, Balancing Sports and Family: 13 Tips for Parents, http://www.momsteam.com/successful-parenting/balancing-sports-and-family-13-tips-for-parents .