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Opinion: The Paradox and Pyramid of Youth Sports

At a time when childhood obesity is rising to unprecedented levels, youth sports in Longmeadow and seemingly everywhere else in the United States have become more and more central to families’ lives. At a time when children have their lives more and more scheduled, mostly courtesy of youth sports, to the point where parents howl at the amount of homework assigned to their kids, children eight to twelve years old spend 4.5 hours per day on electronic devices, not counting their homework. So, which is it? Are we too obsessed with fitness and youth sports, or should we devote even more time to it?

It is a paradox that we are raising a generation of couch potatoes at the same time this same generation seems to have a cornucopia of fitness choices. To understand this paradox, it is necessary to uncouple the concept of general fitness from participation in youth sports. The two may well go together, but they may not.

Members of Gen-X and prior generations grew up in a world that did not offer second graders the chance to participate in three sports per season, year-round. For example, the Longmeadow Soccer Association, with its multitudes of participants today, was founded in 1982. In my early youth in the 1970s in Bangor, ME, you could do little league baseball, and there was guy who let kids do some boxing in his garage.

In this comparatively barren youth sports landscape, kids were left to organize their own games in the neighborhood. Pick-up basketball, whiffle ball, kickball, stickball in the street, touch football all occurred beyond the purview of parents. Those parents, having chased the kids out of the house, were content to spend their evenings sipping on cocktails rather than devoting their attention to their children’s extracurricular activities.

This was not exactly the way to cultivate the athletic talents of America’s youth. Playing games in the neighborhood meant that the fundamentals of various sports were not taught. It did mean that kids had to organize the teams and settle disputes themselves, which required a degree of self-reliance. Kids in these prior generations were also left to get themselves to school and to other places they wanted to go. All of this required, among virtually everyone, a baseline level of movement and exertion that promoted general fitness.

Today, there is an impressive variety of sports for Longmeadow kids to choose from. Beyond the major spectator sports like soccer, basketball, football, and baseball, kids can do gymnastics from the toddler age. They can take up hockey and competitive swimming at an early age. They can choose from field hockey and lacrosse. Kids do golf, equestrian sports, diving, rowing, and ultimate frisbee. Kids can also do things their parents may have never heard of, like ninja warrior or various martial arts disciplines. And of course, there are the ancient sports of spring track and field and fall cross country, which I help to organize. These are all the product of a deliberate effort on the part of adults to enrich the lives of children.

With all these opportunities, one might think we are producing armies of athletes. Whereas the ancient city-state of Sparta was devoted as a society to producing a populace of warriors, the United States seems devoted to producing multitudes of fine athletes in all disciplines. But we don’t.

The more typical experience is of the child who tries soccer or basketball at a very early age and stops doing the sport before the end of elementary school. The Longmeadow in-town soccer league for kindergarten reaches half or more of the kids in town, but it is a struggle to field enough teams for a viable league by the time they are in middle school. Basketball and other sports see a similar drop-off in participation as kids get older.

Some of this drop-off can be attributed to kids finding the activities they are most passionate about and selecting other sports and other activities to specialize in. Many of the kids, for example, choose Longmeadow’s travel soccer teams over the in-town league, starting at the second grade. It is also true that many kids simply drop out of a sport, usually because they conclude they are not very good at it and therefore do not enjoy it.

Youth sports participation—for most sports anyway—is like a giant pyramid. As kids get older, fewer and fewer play, but the remaining athletes play at a higher level and devote more time to it. The pyramid exists in part because one of the primary goals of youth sports programs is to cultivate elite talent, to select the stars of tomorrow and train them up to be the starting lineup of a championship team at Longmeadow High School.

The goal of cultivating elite talent exists in tension with the goal of mass participation. The time of adults who have regular jobs is a finite resource. There are only so many willing coaches, and the best of them will gravitate toward teaching the best athletes. With the exception of track and cross country, athletes are separated into starters and the bench, with playing time carefully meted out by the coach.

The pyramid explains why we have kids more adept at playing video game basketball than actual basketball and adolescent children leading basically sedentary lives. Without the burden of chores and work, and without the diversion of sports, is it any wonder that suburban children spend so many waking hours on social media and video games?

I help to lead the town’s track and cross country programs, where there is no bench and there is no pyramid. When it comes to running, the pyramid is inverted. While this year’s youth track program had a record 190 participants for ages 7-14, the Longmeadow high school track teams, boys and girls combined, are a similar size with fewer grades represented. And a glance outside shows that the sport of choice for adults is long distance running, whether for fitness or for competition.

A vision of lifetime fitness and competition ought to animate the structure and goals of youth sports. What if we could do away with the pyramid, so that we have the same numbers of healthy, athletic people at the ages of 5, 10, 15, and 45? This would require re-thinking the winnowing process we engage in, and the early selection of stars. It would require giving options to kids without top, natural talent, and it could well produce even better varsity teams. I know from track and cross country that it is the relentless challenge of taking on all comers that produces the fastest runners. What if producing the best athletes could co-exist with producing the most athletes? That would be a game-changer.

– Alex J. Grant is a lawyer living in Longmeadow. His email address is alex.grant68@yahoo.com.