Sports are a way for youth to expend their energy in a positive way while developing sport specific skills. More importantly, however, sports are a means to developing life skills at a young age. However, with the growing competition in high school sports and even more so at the college, professional, and Olympic levels, the competition among the programs that feed them has been increasing exponentially. Thus, youth sports have become more competitive and less fun for those who matter most: the children.
We must, then, ask the question: what matters more competition or play? These two valuable and important components of sports should be balanced, but instead they have become lopsided with most of the weight falling on competition. Kevin Kernan writes in a New York Times article that “this country has gone berserk with the pressure of winning in youth sports. Nearly every day you see an example of some parent or coach gone mad. And when they do that, not only are dreams shattered, so is a young player's confidence.” There is a tremendous amount of pressure on kids to excel at a sport and many times a child must choose one sport to focus on year-round. Bruce Ward, the director of physical education and athletics of San Diego Public Schools, explains that “they’re talented, terrific players, but I don’t see the joy. They look tired. They’ve played so much year-round, they are like little professionals.” According to Jay Coakley, fun is no longer measured by the happiness that the sport brings a child, but rather it “comes to be defined in terms of becoming a better athlete, becoming more competitive, and being promoted into more highly skilled training categories.” This is sort of a false sense of fun. A study done by Michigan State University revealed that “by age 13, about 70% of kids have quit sports.” Fun is at a minimum, there is too much pressure, coaches become angry fairly easily, and parents embarrass their children with their overzealous behavior. Daniel R. Gould, director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University, states that the “emphasis on winning ignores the fact that sports is mostly about staying fit and healthy.”
In order to better understand competition versus play, we can take a look at the two main types of sports organizations that Coakley explains. First is informal, player-controlled and second is formal, adult controlled. There are both advantages and disadvantages to each. Engaging in informal, player controlled sports allows participants to “learn how to organize games, form teams, cooperate with peers, develop rules, and take responsibility for following and enforcing rules,” but they may miss out on learning “to manage relationships with adult authority figures” and being taught the strategies of the sport. Formal, adult controlled sports keep “children organized, but they also seemed to limit visible displays of affection and friendship during the games.” It is important to note that both are comprised of competition and play, but formal, adult-controlled model has a heavier focus on competition, while the informal, player-controlled model is more concerned with play. Which model is better for youth? The perfect blend of both. Bob Bigelow, a former member of the Boston Celtics and now a youth sports reformer, explains that “now it's all top down from the parents [but] what most kids want is just to have fun, develop their skills, run around and socialize.” If we can mix competition and play just right, we will be able to create this ideal youth sports concoction that Bigelow touches upon, where all children have the opportunity to participate and where competition is valued but not over-emphasized.
Some parents and community leaders have realized that over-emphasizing competition is not a healthy way to teach their children a sense of fair play. Thus, they have begun to form leagues and organizations that put more of an emphasis on play. One such league based in San Diego is headed by Jerry Hillburn who states “we want to make Little League fun and stress-free, a safe harbor for our kids.” Another program, also based in San Diego but centered around basketball, is lead by Jean Cole who states that “we focus on learning skills, making new friends and fun, not on winning. The emphasis is on recreation and play, not competition.” At the youth level, these two elements should be more balanced than they seem to be. The primary emphasis in youth sports should not be competition for children who primarily participate for the sheer enjoyment sports bring. When youth coaches and parents focus on winning, they often lose the opportunity to really teach life skills. However, competition is certainly not harmful if prescribed in the right dosage for our youth. It is certainly a significant part of sports that should be valued even at the youth level, but when it becomes over-emphasized is when problems begin to arise.
Another problem with youth sports is that not every child has the opportunity to play because of limited access or talent disparities. For example, because of economic restraints, a 1997 report by the Center for the Study of Sport in Society “indicated that youth residing in Boston had only one-third the opportunities for after-school physical activities offered in suburban communities.” Some do not have the money, others live in places where there are no teams, and some are cut from the sports teams that they do have because of the limited number of spots available. Jim Thompson, the executive director of the Positive Coaching Alliance, explains that “we think the playing field is the perfect place to teach character and other positive life lessons. If you buy that, then why is it that only the elite athletes get the benefit of that classroom?.” In addition, Bruce Svare, the director of the National Institute for Sports Reform, says, “What is happening at the high school level is, we're principally satisfying kids who are elite athletes -- the best, the most skilled, the most developed in their particular sport. We’re forgetting everyone else in terms of their health and fitness needs.” This means that there is a need for unique sporting opportunities in order to considered a top-notch athlete. Many of these opportunities can only be acquired with money, which is not a possibility for some of the youth population, causing more disparities between youth athletes.
Both play and competition are extremely vital elements of sports. At the youth level, the emphasis should fall on healthy development and nurturing the player, rather than on a team’s record.