National movement aims to make sports a better development tool for kids.
There’s a national movement to put the fun back into youth sports and to make the development of lifelong physical and mental benefits more important than winning.
For a couple of years, people who have expertise in child development, sports and other fields have been meeting to talk about where we are and where we ought to be with regard to children and sports. This year they launched a report and action plan, “Sport for All / Play for Life.”
Chuck Ayers sent me a copy. Ayers is best known for running the Cascade Bicycle Club for 16 years, but all kinds of sports have been a part of his life since he started playing Little League at around age 6.
His father died before Ayers was 2 years old, leaving his mother to raise five children in rural Connecticut. Sports filled part of the void for him, and over the years he’s worked to help more children benefit from sports. For the past year Ayers has been a research associate at the Center for Leadership in Athletics at the University of Washington College of Education.
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He contacted me because last week I wrote about a book by sports psychologist Ross Flowers, “Introducing Your Child to Sports: An Expert’s Answers to Parents’ Questions about Raising a Healthy, Balanced, Happy Athlete.”
The book and the report complement and reinforce each other, and I recommend reading both.
Let me run through a few of the findings from the report:
Most children ages 6-11 aren’t getting the minimum hour a day of physical activity they need to stay healthy. And between 2008 and 2013, sports-participation rates declined among children 6-12.
Some kids don’t have access to sports programs. Household income makes a difference in access and the age at which children are introduced to sports. The higher the income, the earlier children start participating.
Also, kids’ sports have become extremely competitive, so that more and more children are left out. Often, only kids who can help a team win are valued.
Coaching is a particularly important part of early sports and one that isn’t working well for children. The report said trained coaches are best, “But since grade schools got out of organized youth sports in the 1930s, recreational youth sports have relied on volunteers.” Few of those volunteers get the kind of training that most benefits kids. Children are five times more likely to quit a sport if the coach is untrained.
Flowers told me many countries insist on well-trained coaches, but we don’t.
Coaching was one of the first thing Ayers mentioned when we spoke Friday. He said people are told about the wonderful things sports can do for their children, developing character and confidence, for instance, but none of that happens without the right coach.
“Around 90 percent of coaches in the U.S. are volunteers, usually parents,” he said. “If they get any training at all, it’s usually in the specifics of that sport.” They don’t know about child development and don’t focus on the general physical skills that the youngest kids need.
Ayers said his daughter was 6 or 7 the first time she played on a team and that the coach made it such a bad experience she said she’d never do it again. Fortunately, she bounced back, but not all kids do.
The report has suggestions for minimum training standards for coaches, and suggestions for all of the problems it raises related to kids and sports, such as making daily exercise a part of the school day because research shows kids learn better when they get a chance to move.
The report was written by former Seattle Times reporter Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program.
In his introduction, Farrey notes the “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites physical inactivity and obesity as risk factors for cancer, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, joint and bone disease and depression.”
And a more sane approach to sports could make for healthier communities as well as healthy individuals.
Ayers says sports today are too selective, too costly and not so much about community as they were when he was a kid. Now kids are drawn to elite programs from all over the city. “They don’t know where the other kids live, they don’t know the parents.”
In high school, kids get cut from teams that formed their identities and lose their ties to friends and even to their own identities. The focus on winning above all else is too costly.
I like the report’s suggestion that teams be rated on more than wins. In a survey of kids that asked what was most fun for them, winning was number 48.
No. 1 was trying your best, followed at the top by “when coach treats player with respect,” ”getting playing time,” “playing well together as a team,” “getting along with your teammates,” “exercising and being active.”
Listen to the kids.