One sometimes hears it said youth sports have lulled our children into complacency: everyone, we’re told, gets a trophy now. The idea is that abundant rewards teach an acceptance of mediocrity and an unwillingness to strive for excellence, sure signs of national decline.
The reality is pretty much the opposite. Youth sports suffer from by the same overspecialization, hyper-competitiveness, and economic inequality that plague American classrooms and American childhood more generally. Unsurprisingly, kids are walking away, with declines in participation across the board. Looking at the whole population of America’s young people, hardly anyone gets a trophy now.
Meanwhile, the United States suffers from a youth obesity epidemic created by our mismanagement of childhood. One recent study found that 19-year-olds were as inactive as 60-year-olds. So it’s not that sports are too important. Rather, by increasingly restricting them to the wealthy and overly obsessed, we have made them less central to American life than they should be. If we truly valued sports, we would do more to ensure that they could be shared by all.
Fixing youth sports would mean changing how we understand children and communities. The Aspen Institute’s Project Play suggests some paths out of the current madness. In the group’s report, three recommendations stand out:
“Ask kids what they want.” This point takes us into the contentious realm of video games. Gaming is the perfect scapegoat for those who want to blame the decline of sports on individual initiative (“lazy kids these days”) rather than systemic problems. It really is true that some of the time kids used to spend playing sports is now taken up by the Xbox versions. If Madden is what kids want, should we really ask them?
Instead of demonizing virtual sports, Project Play considers why they might be more appealing than physical ones:
Video games (and the technology industry more broadly) often get blamed for our kids’ sedentary habits, yet they provide much of what children want out of a sport experience, including: lots of action, freedom to experiment, competition without exclusion, social connection with friends as co-players, customization, and a measure of control over the activity — plus, no parents critiquing their every move.
What the Xbox cuts out are all the dreary trappings of the youth sports system: travel, tournaments, trophies, and inordinate attention to wins and losses. The Aspen Institute finds all those things to be less important to kids themselves.
“Reintroduce free play.” The overscheduling of American childhood, by organized sports and myriad other activities, has crowded out unstructured time. The value of free play goes far beyond sports. Alison Gopnik has shown how self-directed experimentation is necessary to develop children’s cognitive abilities, while Richard Louv has argued that free time in nature leads to a more robust environmental sensibility.
One simple solution to the play deficit is recess. According to Project Play, one-third of third graders get less than twenty minutes of daily recess. Twenty minutes! Parents must demand this minimal concession to physical activity.
“Revitalize in-town leagues.” The showcase of modern youth sports, and the bane of overstretched parents, is the travel team, which collects extraordinary fees carting players around to face off against “elite” opponents in distant cities. Sometimes those players, even if they are only in elementary school, can gain a national ranking from websites devoted to finding the “best” athletes. Amid this extreme professionalization, the old community-based recreation leagues are increasingly under duress. Project Play laments their decline:
Historically, these leagues have provided the foundation for sport participation in the U.S., as venues where classmates compete against classmates. It’s been a setting where kids of all skill levels and backgrounds play at the same local field or gym, rarely roaming beyond the town borders. But today, house leagues can be stigmatized as inferior, a casualty of tryout-based, early-forming travel teams that cater to the “best” child athletes.
Once again, sports reveals a larger imperative in our society, the need for a public spirit that has been eclipsed by a culture of class-segregated enclaves. The most affluent families can opt out of community life, whether through private schools, gated housing developments, or “elite” leagues. Those families gain special advantages, the middle class struggles to keep up, and the poor are left out entirely. Yet the final irony is that the apparent travel team benefit is more likely a long-term detriment to physical and emotional welfare.
The Project Play report, entitled Sport for All, Play for Life, has several more recommendations and is worth reading in full. In a world filled with threats, all this attention to soccer and baseball may seem trivial. It’s not. Changing the Game, another sports reform organization, explains that sports can turn kids’ attention away from the goals of “fame, wealth, and popularity” that dominate popular media: “There are few other places for them to learn things such as sportsmanship, teamwork, humility, determination, and courage. There are even fewer environments where we can encourage our kids to be healthy risk takers, overcome challenges, and look upon obstacles as opportunities, and not as excuses to fail.” In the end, it’s not about the trophies.