Almost 8 million high school students and another 40 million children play youth sports. Why? What is the purpose? Are they playing for their enjoyment and development as people or have sports morphed into something else? The answer can be found in the fact that youth sports today is an 8-billion-dollar industry, promoting early specialization, private one-on-one coaching, multi-team participation and a significant financial and emotional investment by parents. Too often sports are no longer about children. Too often the intrinsic value sports once provided our children has shifted to adults who now benefit from an out of control sports industry. The industry has created an over-organized, over-coached frenzy that few parents can withstand—afraid that if they don’t comply with the ‘more is better’ cultural pressure that their child will be left behind. This tension between what is developmentally appropriate for a child and the adults who are benefitting from this new industry has resulted in an unhealthy and pressure-filled experience for the millions of children who are involved in sports today—one that does little to develop their human potential.
Many will proclaim that these types of high-pressure youth sports experiences are good for kids because they build character. Co-founder of the InSideOut Initiative and author Joe Ehrmann asserts that “one of the great myths in our culture is that sports build character, as if doing a handstand, running a race, hitting a curveball, or simply suiting up are sufficient to strengthen a young person’s moral fiber. Unless a coach teaches and models character and encourages its development in athletes, it is more likely organized sports will spoil play and undermine the development of the very character and virtue they claim to build.”
For sports to develop better people and build character we must reframe the purpose of sports. We have to give the game back to the children who play them. For us to accomplish this we must focus not on how the sports industry can best serve adults, but how it can best serve and make children’s lives better. We must transform the current win-at-all-costs sports culture into one that connects students to caring adults in their school community, adults who will look them in the eye and affirm their inherent value and worth, and utilize sports as a tool to intentionally develop and grow the inner lives of the students who play them.
When students are connected to an experience and they have a relationship with an adult who really cares about and affirms them, one who allows them to show up as themselves, belonging and a sense of security follows. Think back to your own playing experiences. Can you recall a coach to whom you were connected—one who accepted you for you and created a safe place where you belonged? If this was your experience, it didn’t happen accidentally. It happened because your coach understood the purpose of sports and his or her role in creating this space. It happens today for students when we choose to be aware of our students’ deeper needs and intentionally create a place of belonging. When this happens the conditions are right for students to experience more than what is on the surface— the game. When we intentionally create this place the conditions are right for deeper, life-changing experiences where work can be done collectively to reach a common goal; where everyone has a role; where students can be themselves and are also aware that they are part of something greater than themselves; and where learning, growth and connection are the purpose.
The goal of interscholastic and youth sports is not to prepare students for a college scholarship or some professional career. It just doesn’t happen that often. 78% of youth who play sport will quit by the age of 12 because it just isn’t fun anymore and 97% of the students who go on to play at the high school level will have a terminal experience when they graduate—they will no longer play organized sports as they have throughout their youth experience. So what’s the point? Why do we play? We play to develop students into people with sound moral character that will prepare them for a life that recognizes the humanity of others, that is rich with empathy and compassion and develops in them the moral courage to stand up for what is right. When we only focus on physical skills and accomplishments we don’t give them the skills that will help them over the course of their lifetime, skills that will make the world a better place. We give them very little that has any real inherent value.
It is time to give sports back to the children who play them. To focus on the true purpose of sports in our children’s lives. For this to happen, we have to establish a clear path, one that defines purpose, promotes values that are important to students and their community and defines success beyond winning. When we define success by the holistic development of our children into moral adults of character and compassion, then sports will regain its proper place in our families, schools and communities and most importantly for the children who play them.