Organized Sports Aren’t Play
by Laura Grace Weldon
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withdrawn.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
The forerunners of today’s supervised youth teams were originally
made up of mostly poor and lower middle-class children, and were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
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
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
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
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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