Do our youngest athletes really need to compete?

"Knowledge that changes behavior loses its relevance. Knowledge that does not change behavior is useless."

How many times do we hear news reports that start with the words, "A new study reports …", or "studies show", or something similar? These reports are so ubiquitous that we make jokes about them. A new study shows that coffee is bad for you; six months later a newer study shows that coffee is good for you again. A few years ago sport coaches were told that flexibility training could be bad for joints and that athletes in some sports should refrain from doing certain exercises. We are always being updated -- bombarded might be a better word -- with new knowledge. The question is what do we do with this knowledge?

New knowledge holds the promise of something better. But it's not always good news, especially when using it might disrupt the way we're used to doing things. Take for example the recommendation that athletes should participate in multiple sports at young ages rather than focusing on only one. The argument behind this sounds reasonable; it allows youngsters to sample a number of activities prior to eventually selecting one to specialize in later on. This expands opportunities to develop physical literacy at an age when it's not only easier to learn basic skills but to begin building what's commonly called athleticism, a quality that will come in handy no matter what sport a youngster eventually chooses later on.

Although this recommendation has been around for a long time the number of young athletes who choose one sport and specialize early keeps rising. And there are obvious reasons for this. Early exposure to training or instruction produces noticeable performance advantages regardless of the activity. It's not unreasonable to assume (though it is incorrect) that continued training would result in linear improvements. This is part of the reason youngsters end up specializing early. The assumption about performance increases is incorrect but you need a certain level of expertise to understand why. Coaches have been down this road many times; they know these early improvements are short lived. Parents only go through this once, so it's hard to convince them that the improvements they see with their own eyes are not sustainable.  

Knowledge that changes behavior loses its relevance. Knowledge that does not change behavior is useless. Yuval Noah Harari

But let's assume that a club or NGB decided to implement a strategy of multiple sport participation. How, exactly, would this work? And who does it? 

These questions are testament to what some argue is the overly organized nature of youth sports. Due to insurance issues, clubs would probably have to be members of several NGBs, employ teachers and coaches certified by different bodies, and deal with their identity as a multi-sport club in a single sport world.  Indeed, assuming that kids and families need a 'program' to orchestrate participation in multiple sports points to an inability to do anything in sport without some level of organization to make it happen.

No matter how many times you hear this plea for multi-sport participation we have to recognize that there is no practical way to implement this idea within the current club environment.

There are three reasons for this:

  • This idea exists completely outside our current youth sport model. As noted above the sport specific club system isn't set up to facilitate participation in other sports. Clubs are commercial entities and maintaining membership is important to their financial health. Athletes who play a number of sports do so on their own initiative. There is no mechanism within the club system to make this happen. 

  • It’s convenient for families. It's no mystery why many families have children involved in the same sport. It's easier logistically and in every other way if all children in the family participate in the same activities. Sports for youngsters are the source of many tales of complicated transport schedules, high costs, and huge time commitments not just for the athletes involved but for their whole family. Finding one activity that all siblings can participate in is a real jackpot for parents.

  • In some areas there are just not that many multiple sport opportunities so the whole idea is like Steve Martin's bit explaining how to be a millionaire and not pay taxes by "First, getting a million dollars!"

Our current youth sport culture is organized around a commercialized, specific sport club model because that's the best way to make it sustainable. Unless that changes — and it's hard to see why it would — multiple sport participation is going to remain a choice that rests with the athlete or family. Participation in multiple sports is a good idea, it's just not one that can be implemented within the current model. If it occurs at all, it has to occur outside the model. 

Do the youngest athletes really need to compete?

In some ways our current model of youth sport is overly organized. Even activities that were once considered seasonal are now organized into clubs with year round training and competition schedules. Child athlete advocates say that this over-organization robs the activities of childhood fun and increases upstream problems like premature dropout and burnout. Ever increasing organization leads to a youth sport version of professionalization, thus pressurizing the experience and driving more children out of the sport than ever before. It's not wrong to wonder if NGBs aren't seeding their own destruction when they allow elite level competition structures to filter down to even the lowest levels of competition.

Competition is probably the main reason why athletes specialize early and don't participate in multiple sports. Participation in any sport leaves little extra time for other activities and a competition schedule adds lots of time and travel. But do young athletes really need competition to progress in their sport? Is competition at the youngest ages really necessary?

When we offer sports to 8-, 9-, and even 10-year-olds we're doing it with our adult understanding of what sport is about. Children that age can have fun and learn skills without any competitive structure at all. And when competition is introduced — maybe at 11 or 12 years — having participated in a fun youth sport environment where they learn the various skills necessary they are actually ready to test them in competition in ways that are physically and intellectually meaningful.

Eliminating organized competition for the youngest athletes is a bold move that would be hard for an NGB to implement. It would be easy to justify though and there would be many researchers willing to jump on board and explain why it's a good idea. Its main purpose would be to depressurize the lowest levels of a sport by allowing youngsters to learn skills in a fun environment and not be trapped into an all consuming activity with no time for anything else.

Youth sport is a great activity for kids. But it can be better. If NGBs are concerned about the loss of young athletes from their programs before and during the pandemic then maybe structural changes are in order. Changes that would allow, if not encourage, trying new activities at the youngest ages.