Sports are a major player in the lives of many young children and their families. But are you doing your children a disservice by “starting them early” when it comes to youth sports? Research says yes.
According to the Youth Development Initiative, over 38 million kids are involved in youth sports. That means 75% of families with school-aged children have at least one participating in sports. While that’s an overwhelmingly high number, the unfortunate truth is most of these young athletes’ careers are short-lived. In fact, statistics from the National Alliance for Sports tell us 70% of kids leave organized sports by the age of 13. Why? Because it’s not fun.
There’s growing concern that the youth sports culture is driving kids away at a critical time in their development. John O’Sullivan, founder and CEO of Changing The Game Project, is trying to return youth sports to children. He believes starting young children in a variety of physical activities, not only organized sports, is a step in the right direction.
O’Sullivan recommends tumbling, martial arts and yoga to help build what he calls the ABCs of movement, telling Parentology, “Agility, balance, coordination are learned skills. Everyone can be an athlete, everyone is born to move. We need to look at ABCs of movement as life skills, just like reading.”
The reason for the increased burn out is blamed in part for the trend of choosing to specialize in one sport at an early age. O’Sullivan counters, “There’s no good reason scientifically, emotionally or socially to choose one sport when they’re very young.”
Youth sports organizations seem slow to catch on to this. “The problem is the system encourages them to choose one sport early,” O’Sullivan says. “I call it the race to nowhere. We do more and more, younger and younger, because of the system, not because it’s good for our kids”
O’Sullivan recommends making sure your children participate in multiple sports, again not necessarily team sports. He also cautions that sports should be tempered and balanced with age. He points to the “hours per age rule.” For instance if a child is eight years old, he should have no more than eight hours of scheduled extra-curricular activities per week.
Even if your child seems naturally drawn to one sport, it’s important they take small breaks to try other things for balance. O’Sullivan also cautions parents to monitor their own involvement in their child’s sports career and look for “signs of intrinsic motivation.” In other words, parents should follow their child’s lead when it comes to what activities they choose.
O’Sullivan says it’s challenging, but parents can work around the system to do what’s best for their kids. “The system doesn’t allow what is necessarily good for kids, but you can find that balance.”