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Organized Sports Aren’t Play
by Laura Grace Weldon

Organized sports aren't play

I recently had coffee with a child psychologist friend. She told me her practice is packed with parents desperate to find solutions for their unhappy children. She sees six-year-olds who are anxious and withdrawn. Eight-year-olds who are angry and cynical. Preteens who suffer from perfectionism, from depression, from self-harming impulses.

I nodded sorrowfully.

We discussed today’s childhood stressors, from too much homework to too little family time. We agreed kids need more opportunities for play. But I couldn’t hide my surprise when she said her standard suggestion for parents was to get their kids into sports.

My eyebrows went up and I probably ranted a little. I sputtered that organized sports aren’t play. Play is fun that exists for its own sake. Sometimes play looks like daydreaming and make-believe. Sometimes it looks like painting a picture, pounding nails, tossing a ball, or playing tag. While organized sports can be and often are fun, they’re still highly structured programs run by adults. I asked my friend if she prescribed play, why not free play?

She agreed in principle. “But there are no kids running around outside anymore,” she said gently. “We have to funnel them into sports so at least they get a semblance of play.”

Sports, like any other game, used to belong entirely to kids. Just a few generations ago, there weren’t many organized sports programs, especially for kids younger than teens. Kids loved sports with just as much fervor as they do today, but to engage in them they simply went outside, found a few other kids, and played.

Organized competitions for boys began to rise in the nineteenth century following the emergence of compulsory education. The school day itself restructured children’s lives, dividing educational time apart from free time. Adults began to more seriously consider how kids used those out-of-school hours. By the early part of the twentieth century, increasing numbers of immigrant children crowding city streets as they played got the attention of reformers. Along with an extraordinary new movement to create urban playgrounds came the idea that play should be supervised, especially for boys from the poorest families. As historian Robert Halpern explains, the physical challenges of sports were thought to prepare the poorest classes to be physical laborers in the emerging industrial society.

The forerunners of today’s supervised youth teams were originally made up of mostly poor and lower middle-class children, and were intended to ameliorate social conditions. Leagues were started by organizations such as the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), which used sports to promote religion more than to advance athletics, as well as groups advocating organized sports as way to save boys from vice. In his book Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids, Mark Hyman writes that Little League took hold during the Depression, slotting youthful energy toward sports in a time when the job outlook wasn’t good.

Not long ago, most middle class children didn’t engage in organized sports until they were in their early teens, and then usually in school-sponsored teams. A middle class emphasis on adult-run sports ratcheted up right around the time that salaries for professional teams began to skyrocket. Parents and coaches promoted the idea that talented kids had a shot at professional sports if they worked hard enough and if they believed in themselves. Sports grew outside their seasons, bulging with training camps, private coaches, and travel games.

Parents also began to equate success in athletics with a better chance of admission to choice colleges and universities. This motivated parents to start their kids in organized sports at younger and younger ages, hoping to give them a competitive edge over other kids.

Now, organized sports have become standard for children as young as four years old, sometimes younger. A distinguishing factor in early entry into competitive sports is monetary – kids are most likely to start young when annual household income is over $100,000. Already in the U.S., sixty percent of boys and forty-seven percent of girls are on a team by age six, according to a 2013 article in ESPN Magazine.

Sports participation dominates in the suburbs, where boys are likely to play on three or more teams. Parents are expected to buy specialized gear, drive children to practices, attend games, participate in fund-raisers, plus pay for skill clinics and off-season camps. Childhood time for free play is sacrificed. So is family time. Is all this necessary? Apparently not. Here’s why.

1. Starting kids as early as possible does not give them an advantage over other kids. In fact, says Brooke de Lench in her book Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports, it has been found to diminish their eagerness to participate.

2. Also, says de Lench, preschoolers who take part in sports programs aren’t more likely to be high school athletes than kids who don’t.

3. Correctly identifying who is genuinely talented at a young age is not only difficult, but studies reported by the National Institutes of Health show the earlier a child is identified as having talent the more uncertain is the prediction of his or her future success.

4. Sports, even in the early elementary years, can be intense. Hours devoted to practice sessions, clinics, games, and tournaments take a large portion of children’s free time, leading them to exaggerate the overall importance of sports. Sports psychologists remind parents that young children aren’t able to differentiate performance from who they are as people.

5. The bullying coach isn’t just a meme. It’s all too often a reality, one that’s harmful not only for young children but older athletes as well. Laurence Steinberg, an expert on adolescent psychology, explains in a recent interview published in The Atlantic that the pressure on kids causes serious performance anxiety. Critical, sometimes demeaning, language directed at kids is far more powerful than adults realize, particularly during the teen years when the brain is more highly attuned to emotional arousal. “When an adult is delivering a message to an adolescent, if it’s in an emotional way,” says Steinberg, “the kids will pay more attention to the way the message is delivered than to what is in the message.”

6. Negative, high pressure coaching doesn’t improve young athletes’ performances. A study of coaching techniques published in the journal Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology concluded, “...abusive coaching behaviors can bring out the worst in their team by fostering an atmosphere where student-athletes are more willing to cheat, less inclusive toward others, and less satisfied....”

7. A study of over sixteen hundred high school athletes published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2014 noted that teenage boys who participate in football and/or basketball are almost twice as likely to have acted abusively to their dating partners. Researchers found that high school athletics can reinforce “hyper-masculine attitudes,” and boys who hold such attitudes were up to three times more likely to abuse their girlfriends. Another study of nearly a hundred thousand high school students, published in 2007 in American Sociological Review found that players of contact-heavy sports, particularly football, were nearly forty percent more likely to act aggressively off the field than non-athletes.  These aren’t necessarily causative factors but show a disturbing relationship.

8. As young athletes get older, they’re increasingly likely to drop out. Almost seventy-five percent of kids who play organized sports quit by age thirteen, according to an article by Steven Henson on the blog The Post Game. Their reasons? Nearly forty percent list as their top reason, “I was not having fun.” Even more young people drop out in their freshman year, when stats show there’s another twenty-six percent drop in the number of students who play.

9. The odds, overall, of a high school athlete landing a college scholarship at an NCAA school stand at two percent. That’s true even for youth whose parents have spent heavily on high-level youth sport for years.

10. The cost of competing is increasingly likely to consume up to ten-and-a-half percent of gross family income. Parents on average pay per player, per year between $2,200 and $4,000 to participate in travel soccer, $2,600 in hockey, and $5,000 to more than $10,000 for gymnastics.

11. All this spending ratchets up the pressure on young athletes. In the Post Game, Steve Henson describes how when college players were asked to talk about their worst memory from playing youth sports, overwhelmingly they answered, “The ride home from games with my parents.” Apparently, even the most well-intentioned parents weigh in with their own opinions rather than allowing the child to own his or her own experience. It’s significant to note that the same survey of players found the best comment by parents was very simply, “I love to watch you play.”

12. In addition, there are the health consequences. Reports of injuries are up, with over two-and-a-half million emergency room visits a year, and there’s particular concern that concussions and other head trauma may cause lasting damage.

13. One reason parents encourage sports is to boost a child’s health, yet obesity is on the increase. From the early 1970s to now, the prevalence of obesity in children ages six to eleven has quadrupled, and for those ages twelve to nineteen it has tripled. There are certainly many causes, including more processed foods in the diet and estrogen-mimicking hormones in plastic, but perhaps organized sports are a factor. Children are full of energy. They run and play for the sheer joy of movement. But when that activity is channeled into practices and games, it may turn kids off from engaging in physical activity outside of sports, when they slump into a chair like workers after a busy factory shift. We know, for example, that rewarding kids for reading severely diminishes their motivation to read for pleasure. It’s worth considering that sports might have a similar effect on the motivation to engage in physical activity outside of sports.

It’s not an all or nothing proposition. Sports brim with benefits. They promote fitness and overall health. They can provide extraordinary lessons in teamwork, persistence, and handling disappointment. They may even give kids lifelong memories of epic moments. That’s true of organized sports but it’s also true of informal sports. The issue is more about what adults have done to games that kids once organized on their own and played with each other.

Laura Grace Weldon is the author of “Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything,” as well as a poetry collection entitled “Tending.” You can learn more about her books on her website, and read her blog posts about learning and creative living.

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