Why do North American kids participate in Youth Sports? One would like to think that kids are playing sports to have fun, develop skills, and even pick up a few core values along the way, like good sportsmanship. Unfortunately this is no longer a given. Youth sports in today’s culture is a far cry from days past when kids played locally with friends from their own neighborhood, or on a community team for a season that lasted four months out of the year [not twelve]. Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children by Tim Farrey bares the truth about what’s behind youth sports, prompting readers to think about what is going on with our kids. Really, quite an eye-opener.
Youth sports is not always about the kids, but it is about the adults; adults with their own agendas. Game On is an essential read for coaches, parents, and a must read for anyone else involved with youth. I’ve read numerous books on this topic, and Farrey’s book is the best I’ve read because of the startling facts he provides, the breadth and depth of his research, and how he tells the story. In this article I’ll provide an overview of the book, and review one of the most provocative of chapters, The Man about a sixth grader and his NBA dream.
Non-fiction books can be a dry [and dull] read, not Game On. Farrey gives the reader not just snippets of facts and anecdotes to support his points, but full stories. And robust stories they are; all true, which at times is disconcerting, especially when reading of young athletes that were pushed, pressured and in some instances taken advantage of.
Farrey also affirmed the premise that some elite young athletes do have physical advantages over their competitors; physical gifts they are born with, (I wrote in a previous blog post about this topic – nature vs. nurture). Interesting is the fact that companies now market a technology to test DNA of children, sports gene testing, to see what sports they are ‘built’ for. Farrey writes about his travels to Australia to have his youngest son’s DNA tested.
Yet, some kids are identified as super stars at very young ages, though it may not be due to innate talent. These kids are singled out as gifted because they are stronger and more physically mature than their peers – they have reached puberty at an early age. This fact is highlighted as MYTH in the book, [of which there is one MYTH and TRUTH in the sidebar of each chapter]. Below is the MYTH and TRUTH in chapter eight:
MYTH No. 8: Grade-school travel teams identify future stars. THE TRUTH: They reward early bloomers, leaving the rest behind.
Farrey tells a story about a young sixth grader, J-Mike, in the chapter titled The Man who matured early and was significantly taller than his peers. J-Mike was a star basketball player [at the end of sixth grade] and as a result was on a basketball scouting roster, Hoop Scoop which ranks middle and high school kids by their playing ability and game stats. This ‘service’ is linked to the premiere [expensive] basketball camp, Jr. Phenom Camp which is marketed to middle-school students [these two businesses work together quite well it seems, each mentioning the other on its website]. Think of a sixth grader, at the age ten ranked against his peers, including stats on height and weight. Of no surprise, J-Mike experienced many challenges as a result of his number one status, especially when his peers started catching up to him in size.
Another startling ‘truth’ presented in the book is United States approach to athlete development. Farrey uses the example of how coaches are trained [or not trained] to illustrate the glaring difference between the US and other countries. In the US few youth coaches complete any formal training — many are parents and volunteers that at best, have attended a three-day workshop. In club sports, even though many coaches are in paid positions, it still does not guarantee that they have received training in child development, sports medicine or kinesiology. In Europe and other countries, coaching is held to a higher level of professional standard; extensive training in sports medicine, child development and psychology is provided. Not so in the US as demonstrated by a research report prepared for the American College of Sports Medicine in 2006. The study revealed that many coaches used disciplinary techniques that were not developmentally appropriate for elementary and middle school age kids. Results from the survey revealed the following measures used by coaches to discipline youth participants: extra exercise (64 percent), verbal scolding (42 percent), public embarrassment (18 percent), and suspension (8 percent).
What to do?
It’s no wonder that most kids stop participating in organized sports by the age of twelve, and that we have the problems we do with overweight and inactive kids. There are solutions however, many organizations, parents and volunteers are working hard to keep our kids active. Farrey devotes the last chapter to potential solutions to this problem. Though it takes a village, as the saying goes to raise a child, and they need our help. Awareness is the first step towards positive change in youth sports. I encourage readers to pick up the book (link below), and/or do some further research about youth sports, and ask questions of coaches and sports administrators. For parents, perhaps finding alternate teams that provide a safe and fun environment that focuses on participation for all. Our kids need us, adults shouldn’t need the kids.
Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children, (2008) Tim Farrey
STOP Sports Injuries, www.stopsportsinjuries.org
The Aspen Institute, Sports and Society Program