In Part 1, Youth sports in the USA: It's time to fix what's broken, we detailed the areas of our youth sports systems that, at worst, can create anxiety, depression, burnout, fragility, and contribute to kids quitting sports altogether.
Here is what we should do:
1. Sport sampling — Encourage your child to play multiple sports. This is healthy for many reasons:
• It allows your child to try multiple sports to experience which sport really suits them from a physical, emotional, and social aspect. This is called “match fit.”
• Your kid experiences more challenges and stimuli when multiple sports are played. This allows kids to develop into all-around high-quality athletes that can transfer skills from one sport to another. For example, playing basketball can help an athlete read bounces, balls in the air, and understand their ability to jump. With those skills, a soccer player can read the flight of a punted ball and know when to jump to time a header. There are countless examples of successful athletes who played a multitude of sports growing up and credit that sport sampling for their success: Roger Federer, Russell Wilson and Megan Rapinoe to name just a few. It turns out, they are not the exception, they are the rule. There are many resources that back this theory with science, David Epstein’s book: Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.
• It provides balance and learning opportunities from serving multiple roles. Maybe your kid is the point guard on a basketball team of four other players. Maybe your kid is a tennis player out on the court alone. Maybe your kid is a running back on a football team of 30. Maybe your kid is the backup pitcher struggling to get time in the game. In each of these sports and scenarios your child serves a different role and has to learn how to fill that role effectively.
• It lowers risk of injury because the body develops a wide range of movements that are necessary for the different sports played.
2. Sport sampling and offseason — This is healthy for many reasons:
• When your child plays the same sport 365 days a year they are consistently using, exerting and straining the same muscle groups. Those muscles never really get a break and so they are more susceptible to injury including long-term injuries that we are seeing earlier and earlier in most sports these days (due to early specialization) such as ACL tears in women’s soccer players. Similar to a pitch count in baseball, we should have a sport-specific “pitch count” that, when hit, signals time to take a mental and physical break.
• An offseason allows your kid to be a kid — not everything they do has to revolve around some sports league. Let your child play in the woods, dig holes, go to the beach, take singing lessons, explore an artistic craft. This will allow them to build their identity outside of sport which is so important for …
• Balance. An offseason provides balance for a child so they don’t wrap their value, worth, and identity around a single sport. Allow your child to see themself as a whole human being with a variety of interests.
• Longevity. An alarming number of kids are quitting sports altogether by the age of 13 and much of this has to do with the intensity with which the American model approaches a game. With the opportunity to sample sports and have an offseason, we enable and encourage our children to play longer.
3. Play fewer games and keep them local — Sports science and periodization have shown us that games push our children to their capacity when it comes to physical exertion. For example, full recovery time after a 90-minute soccer game is 72 hours. When we have our kids playing back-to-back games, this increases to 96 hours. I am not saying we can’t have the occasional two-game weekend or tournament, but it is important that we allow our kids the recovery time or else injury and burnout are a real possibility. Also, reducing the number of games reduces the travel time for families. Too often, entire weekends are dedicated to getting to, playing, and getting home from a game that can be several hours away.
Also, the more we build in national championships, national rankings, and tournament champions from such a young age – the business side of youth sports – we are teaching our kids to treat it like a business. What more is there to play for once you won the national championship? Talk about a come down (a very real mental health issue for Olympians and any athlete who wins a big championship – just ask Michael Phelps).
But wait, you won a national championship! So what? There are eight more next month and tomorrow you have two league games four hours away. Our children lose the most important reason of why we play ... to play. The sport becomes purely about the result, not the process. This is a sad reality we are living in now. The family spends all hours planning and attending these overwhelming number of events which leaves no time for all the other healthy, balancing, and free form activities. The sport is the family business, and your child is the employee.
4. Pickup style games — The more we can get out of the way of our child’s sports experience, the better. That means we should still support our children, but we need to allow them to lead the way. This includes pickup games with neighborhood kids or even pickup games at practice. When we constantly and consistently organize practice, the sport turns into a science rather than what it should be, an art form. We risk creating robots who play to please the coach/parent rather than for the love of the game. Also, when kids call their own fouls, create their own rules, mitigate competition and conflict, the valuable lessons that sport teaches are fully on display. The kids learn how to be autonomous, independent and self-regulating. They also learn what it means to cultivate an intrinsic desire to win (see No. 6).
5. The right ride home — There is a good reason that surveys show kids prefer the ride home with their grandparents over their parents. Grandparents don’t critique the coaches’ substitution in the 58th minute or chastise the referee for a missed call. My advice is to act like a grandparent and stick to these two comments:
1. “I loved watching you play.”
2. “That play (add details) was awesome!” Bring up one key play that stands out to you that acknowledges effort and/or character. For example, “I loved that you were the first person to high-five your teammate when they scored that goal.” Or “It was awesome to see you get back up when that player knocked you out of bounds.” Then shut up and let them lead the conversation.
6. Long-term development — Coaches and parents should have a long-term view of their child's development. Like, long term. What is best for them now so that they are healthy and thriving at age 25. See 1, 2, 3, 4 & 5 on how to have a long-term development outlook. I can already hear a lot of parents say to me, “Winning matters!’ I had this exact conversation recently with a parent of a kid I train. I agree, winning does matter. Why?
• Winning should be a byproduct of an effective developmental process. If you are building a successful team with successful habits, you will win. Not all the time, but more of the time. Another great lesson for kids to learn — you can do all the right things and still not win.
• Winning should and can be an intrinsic motivation to athletes. One of the many benefits of playing pickup street hockey with all my friends against our rival neighborhood was cultivating the deep desire to win. Not for our record in the league, not for my parents, coaches, or club, not for the trophy or medal at the end (there was none) but for me — my own standards, my pride, my neighborhood reputation. This intrinsic desire carried over to playing tennis with my brother, soccer at recess, cards on vacation. You name it. I wanted to win for me and live up to my own standards.
Another big piece of the “Win NOW” puzzle is the fact that kids mature at different rates. Here is where we need to introduce the Relative Age Effect — a term used to describe how those born early in the academic year tend to perform to a higher level than those born later.
This disadvantage may occur because those who are older are typically more physically, emotionally, or cognitively developed than those who are younger. So, if we emphasize winning now, we are selecting players who are not necessarily better, they are just born in the early part of the year. We run the risk of discouraging those born later and watching them quit the sport altogether.
Also, we run the risk of emphasizing size over skill and so the players born earlier do not develop the same technical skills and rely mainly on their physical dominance. Those physical aspects will level off over time; the late bloomers who hang in there eventually catch up and are often more advanced and well-rounded when this happens.
Another option is bio-banding — This was a concept introduced to us in the B Course. You lump players together by maturation, not age. So, if you have a player born in the early part of the year that is more physically, cognitively, and emotionally developed, you may push them to the higher level, so they are challenged on a consistent basis. The same goes for the late developer. You may push them to a lower level, so they are properly challenged and not consistently discouraged by being the smallest player on the field.
7. Your child is NOT the exception – science applies to everyone. And the chances of your child getting a college scholarship are miniscule. The chances of them going pro? Next to nothing. So, as you stress to keep your child as the top player at age 11 and inundate them with sport specialized activities, you are risking building a human that gets burnt out, hates the sport, resents their parents, and gets seriously injured. Plus, there is a huge cost to the family as a whole – gone are the breaks, vacations, and balance that allows all members to understand there is more to life than just the game. The risk is not worth whatever reward you see way down the line.
8. Parents back the F*** up – This is not your journey. I repeat. This is not your journey. The more times your child looks over at you for whatever reason, they less they are present in the moment. Should you attend games and be engaged in your child’s sporting life? Of course, and the sole reason for this is you love to watch them play. If and when they need you, you are there. Otherwise, stay the F out of it. Let your child absorb and learn all the invaluable lessons that sport teaches without you attached at their hip. Your child, at some point, will get cut from a team, injured, hurt, frustrated but that is the whole point. Sport has a unique and incomparable way of presenting us with adversity and the safe environment where one can overcome it. The ultimate goal, remember, is to build a self-actualized human who can resiliently, independently and confidently walk through this world knowing they can handle whatever life throws their way.
Honestly, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more to be said but I will leave you with this:
Three pieces of advice to parents
1. Fight the pressure — A lot of the decisions we make are out of comparison to others. There is a reason Theodore Roosevelt said, “comparison is the thief of joy.” The “keeping up with the Jones’” model is suffocating and unhealthy. Sure, the player who gets more minutes than your child does personal training three days a week, 52 weeks a year at the age of 11. So what? We have learned above that this is not what is healthy for long-term development or an indication of long-term success. Fight the pressure, follow the science, and do what is right for your child now so they are healthy and happy at 25.
2. Listen to your kid — The parents’ job is to support the needs of their child, not mold their child into the athlete you wanted to be. So you played high-level basketball? So what? That does not equate to your child following the same path. Listen to what they want and provide them the opportunity to try it.
3. Make value-based choices — If you follow the science and live in these sports values, it will mean you have to make hard choices. You might need to force your child to take time off, say “no” to the 15th tournament that year that is played on Christmas Day, leave a team where the coach emphasizes winning over developing athletes of high character, not hiring that personal trainer for your 10-year-old, but enrolling them in the neighborhood swim team instead. These are just a few examples of the hundreds that will arise. If you have strong values, then the choice is clear.
(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