Raise your hand if you believe athletics are important to a healthy childhood.
You’re not alone. Sports have become tightly woven into the psyches of parents, educators, and youth experts as not only valuable, but key to a healthy childhood. And for good reason. The Aspen Institute’s Project Play lists these benefits for young athletes:1
- Kids who play sports are more likely to become active adults.
- Physical activity is associated with improved academic achievement.
- High school athletes are more likely than non-athletes to attend college and get degrees.
- Female high school athletes are less likely to be sexually active, to use drugs, and to suffer from depression, when compared to non-athlete peers.
The Downside of Sports
But despite these benefits, there’s also a growing sense that youth sports have become over-competitive and overblown. Parents and coaches alike feel the anxiety surrounding sign-ups for the kindergarten soccer team or the parent screaming at the ref from the Little League bleachers.
Project Play, an initiative working to elevate health and inclusion as core values in youth sports, offers a few reality checks:
- Travel-team parents spend an average of $2,266 annually on their child’s sports participation, and at the elite levels some families spend more than $20,000 per year. However, the percentage of high school students getting athletic college scholarships is less than 3%.2
- More than 40% of parents whose child plays an organized sport say their child does so year-round. Yet, free play has been shown to produce higher levels of physical activity than organized sports.
- Overuse injuries are responsible for nearly half of all sports injuries to middle and high school students.
Good Solutions Start with Good Questions
How can parents, coaches, and youth sports leaders cut through the emotional hype to give more kids what they actually need from sports? Based on ideas from Project Play, here are 3 questions parents and sports educators should keep in mind:3
1) What Do Kids Want from Sports?
Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute Sports and Society Program, gets to the heart of the matter: “What most kids want to do is play sports, broadly defined,” he says. “They want to chase balls or friends and have fun. So sport, when presented with the needs of a child in mind, offers an ideal opportunity to develop children and adolescents in ways that engage them while serving the health of communities.”4
2) How Can Overall Sports Literacy Be Encouraged?
One goal in Project Play is for every child to learn a basic set of fitness skills (i.e., running, throwing) and gain the confidence and desire to make them part of regular physical activity. Data supports a “sampling period” of sports experiences through at least age 12, according to The New York Times.5
According to Project Play, “the emerging research says that a sport-sampling pathway leads to less burnout, less social isolation, better performance, and, most importantly, more lifelong enjoyment in sport.”6 It’s healthier too: CNN reports that single-sport play is the cause of 3.5 million injury-related drop-outs due to overuse of certain joints.7
In addition, the U.S. Olympic Committee found in a survey requested by Project Play that 7 out of 10 Olympians said they grew up as multi-sport athletes, and nearly all called it “valuable.”
3) How Can Informal Playtime Be Incorporated?8
Michael Jordan included a “love of the game” clause in his NBA contract that allowed him to play basketball whenever and wherever he wanted, according to the Project Play website. He understood the value of playing for fun.
Informal play is associated with higher levels of academic creativity, protects against injury in competitive athletes, and helps kids learn how to set goals and attain them, according to research cited on the website. But Project Play also maintains that a breakthrough document from the U.S. Soccer Federation encouraged more free play because it wants more creative players, “like those emerging from the street soccer cultures of South America.”
“Coaches can often be more helpful to a young player’s development by organizing less, saying less, and allowing the players to do more,” states the Federation’s 2006 document Best Practices for Coaching in the United States. “Be comfortable organizing a session that looks like pickup soccer.”
Advice for Parents
As for parents who want to help their kids get a college scholarship, there are more school dollars for academics, said Mark Hyman, professor and author of books on youth sports, in The New York Times. “You’re better off investing in a biology tutor than a quarterback coach.”