“If you are aiming for high-quality development, full self-actualization of every youth in that system as they engage deeply with whatever it is they are interested in and good at and bring that to bear on the world so they make the world a better place together — then we need to really help educators and parents and all society understand what learning is and what achievement actually entails.”
— Mary Helen Immordino Yang, a Professor of Education, Psychology, Human Development and Neuroscience at the University of Southern California
LEARNING AND ACHIEVEMENT … two things that our youth sports systems claim to develop within our kids. It’s all bullshit.
Yes, that’s what I said. And many people won’t like that. I am sure, however, that after years of witnessing the pain disguised as “development” in the youth sports structure and learning the science behind periodization, specialization, long-term development, and injury prevention, I am not the first to tell you our youth sports system is broken. Badly broken.
I have felt passionately about saying this out loud for years.
Now let me say and say loudly: I totally believe in the power of sport. The lessons sport teaches, its ability to build bridges and unite people is unparalleled. Heck, I travel the globe as a sports diplomat preaching these messages and imparting these exact lessons in less developed nations. I even wrote a book about it.
It has become very clear to me now, however, that sport isn’t always good. Nothing is. After hundreds of side conversations with frustrated parents, young athletes in tears, clubs with win-at-all-cost attitudes, and screaming coaches on the sideline directing each player's every move, the time has come to speak up. I recently completed the USSF B Coaching License course, as well as more than 100 interviews prior to writing my book, “Raising Tomorrow’s Champions: What the Women’s National Team Teaches Us About Grit, Authenticity, and Winning.” The stories of the greatest women’s soccer players of all time, whose stories are reflected in the pages, backed the emerging body of science that is reaching a broad consensus: we are doing things wrong.
I honestly didn’t need to hear any of that. I just knew. I was a full-scholarship college athlete, professional soccer player of 16-plus years and member of the U.S. women’s national team. I’ve been a mental performance coach, and become an expert on the mental, emotional and social development of youth athletes through decades of work with kids. Everywhere I turn, I see systemic failure.
At the end of the day, it is our youth who suffer the most in this situation. Anxiety, depression, burnout, fragility, quitting sport altogether ... you name it ... it’s all happening at alarming rates. You don’t need me to tell you that these are real and serious issues in our world today. So, I share this knowledge out of an effort to disrupt the runaway train of youth athletics. Maybe I can be a tiny part of the force that stops it on the tracks before it crashes and burns.
Now, it’s time to fix what’s broken. That begins with understanding periodization — the systematic planning of athletic or physical training. The aim is to achieve the best possible performance in the most important competition of the year. It involves progressive cycling of various aspects of a training program during a specific period. It also adheres to the developmental stages for age groups, so your child is experiencing what is developmentally appropriate for their age and level.
Periodization, among other things, is intended to reduce injury based on the understanding of proper recovery time after a game and the physical demands on the body.
First, let’s look at our current system:
1. Specialize from a young age — In America, we are obsessed with the child prodigy. We want our kid to be the next Tiger Woods or Serena Williams. We push our children to choose a sport and practice it relentlessly from the age of 6 years old. We think the more practice time they can get in, the faster they get to 10,000 hours that it allegedly requires to become great at something (which has been debunked by the way) and the higher the chance of a college scholarship or making it pro. This is all wrong.
2. Play one sport all year long — This is an offshoot of specialization that we expect of our would-be prodigies. Forget seasons. We want our child to play the same sport 365 days a year — with no offseasons, no sport sampling, just one continuous marathon. This is all wrong. Periodization also tells us this is wrong. Bodies need a break from consistent pounding and exertion of the same muscle groups.
When the author, Joanna Lohman, finished her 16-year pro career, she became the first player in Washington Spirit history to have her jersey retired.
3. Play as many competitive games as possible — We want game after game, tournaments with multiple games in one day, showcases and identification camps. We want more opportunities for kids to compete and judge their talent compared to an opposition. Heck, we want to be able to rank teams nationally from the age of 7 years old and how can we do that if we don’t play a lot of games all over the country? We want our toddlers playing for the national championship to win trophies, medals, and recognition so it can all get posted on social media for others to see and swoon over. What better way to test their resilience and competitive desires than to put them in pressure-filled situations from the womb! This is all wrong.
4. Organize every practice — We want cones, ladders, goals with nets, and adult supervision to ensure kids are being drilled in the exact skills we want them to learn. We schedule practices six nights a week with a game on the weekend — regardless of whatever else these children might need to do for school, their friends or families. We show them exactly how to behave in each scenario. If the ball goes here, you run there. If your defender runs right, you run left. If the opponent drops back, you push forward. We joystick the sport to become a science. We build robots who act on command. This is all wrong.
5. Analyze your child’s performance on the ride home — We want to capitalize on this time with our kid by reminding them about all the things they did wrong in the game or asking what happened on a certain play. We want them to self-reflect and dissect the game they just played so they’ll be better for the next one. We want to criticize the referees and second guess the coaches. This is all wrong.
6. Win NOW — From the age of 6, we want to judge players, coaches, and sports clubs on their win/loss record. We emphasize winning over everything. Our most common question after our child’s game, “Did you win?” We are subtly and not so subtly reinforcing that winning is the only objective of playing sports. Slowly, but surely, our kids attach their identities around an outcome and they play purely to win. We play only the kids who are bigger, faster and stronger in an attempt to win every game and get a higher ranking. This is entirely wrong.
7. My child is the exception – Your child has been one of the best players since they were 6. They play on the top team, start every game, and play the entire time. Your child is the one others look up to and depend on to win games. You’re special and so science does not apply in this case. You must double down on the trainings, games, and camps, because they are the best and that is what the best do. We live in fear that not following this maniacal training schedule will result in their peers’ leap-frogging them at any point. This is all wrong.
8. Parent overload – The parent needs to be at every practice, every game, and every additional training lording over, watching intently, adding their opinion, and critiquing their child’s skill and effort. Who else will remind them of their weaknesses and areas of improvement? We need our child to know that we are there so they can constantly look over for approval. This is called “support.” This is all wrong.
In Part 2 (Youth sports in the USA: A parents guide to steering past the pitfalls), we’ll present solutions and advice to parents.
(Joanna Lohman is a USSF B license coach who specializes in the mental, physical and emotional development of youth athletes. Upon retiring from a 16-year pro career, she became the first player in Washington Spirit history to have her jersey retired. Lohman, who appeared for the U.S. national team in 2001, 2006-07, while playing built a platform for social impact as a sport diplomat. She continues her influence as a mindset coach, professional speaker, human rights activist, and author of "Raising Tomorrow's Champions." She resides in Silver Spring, Maryland with her wife, Melodie, and her dog, Dewey. Her website is: joannalohman.com