It is widely understood that youth sports is a dress rehearsal for life. Inside a relatively safe environment are many of life’s essential lessons; winning, losing, roles, responsibility, feedback, communication, team work and more. Few would argue the positive impact youth sport has on building community, the village it takes to raise our children.

Yet despite the evidence based benefits, youth sport has come under increasing pressure over the past decade through what many are calling the monetization & specialization of play. We’ve turned play, into work for millions of kids and in doing so, are now watching millions of kids stop working.

Socially, youth sports was built on the foundation of fun. An opportunity to try new pursuits over new seasons, meet new friends and engage in friendly competition. If you were to head down to the local diamond, pitch and most notoriously arena, you may be hard pressed to call what’s unfolding in front of your eyes, fun. A large percentage of kids sitting on the bench as coaches try to get the youth-sport-career-defining-win. A large percentage of parents yelling at their kids, officials or coaches over youth-sport-career-defining-moment -misses. And a large percentage of youth sport organizations doing things ‘the way they’ve always been done’ in a world that now changes weekly.

There is no bigger threat to the sustainability youth sport than the well intentioned, uninformed parent, coach or director.

Youth sports are supposed to bring the community (and it’s residents) together…. not drive them apart. Developmentally, the early stages, youth sport (0-12) are designed to support an active start, building FUNdamental skills and learning to train in accordance with Canada’s Long Term Athlete Development pathway (which has been adopted by every local, provincial and national sport organization) but lacks any proper mechanisms of accountability. Instead, we’re seeing is the focus shift to the standings, the score & who scored and what gets measured becomes what matters. Many of our youth sport systems are no longer about development. (the process), they are about the victory (the outcome). We’re watching the early specialization of sports where single sports are condoning year round programming under the guise of greater rewards on the other end. Statistics are showing the exact opposite. The very college institutions we have made the ‘focus’ for our 10 year olds have gone as far as publishing articles outlining how they prefer to recruit multi sport athletes.

Economically, many are now thriving from the business of youth sport specialization. Prestigious camps, private lessons, elite clubs and now academies, where for the right price, you can increase your kids chances at getting to the big leagues starting at 12. Sadly, few parents (the decision makers) educate or care to educate themselves on the reality that less than 6% of high school athletes will go on to play a college sport (6 of 100) and less than 2% of those will continue to the next level. Or, the fact that Canada ranks 117 in the world for men’s soccer despite it being a year round sport supported by endless academies. In some instances in soccer, parents have joined boards and volunteered to manage teams in attempts to influence decision making and the money keeps on rolling in.

With this, what steps should we be taking to support youth sport development in our communities. The following the top 5 recommendations.

  1. Focus on fun. Don’t ruin our kids youth sport journey by making their experience work.
  2. Enjoy watching your kids play. In the big picture, it’s a small window, so as often as possible let your child know how much you enjoy watching them play sports. “I love watching you play” are the most powerful words you can speak.
  3. Educate yourself. There is research and science on Long Term Athlete Development. Use it to inform your decision making as an athlete, parent, coach or organization and hold people accountable.
  4. Recognize the process of athlete development the immediate gratification outcome/score. The score reveals very little about how athletes are progressing
  5. Introduce/ expose your kids to as many sports as possible. Avoid being pressured or fooled into believing there is only one sport for them.

Our youth sports systems are an integral aspect in the community ecosystem. We must consider doing more to preserve their existence and future sustainability.

Matt Young

Matt Young is a passionate community coach, Top 40U40 Business Award recipient for Vancouver & Canada and member of the BC & Canadian Physical Literacy Strategy groups. He consults regionally, nationally & internationally on long term athlete development.