As the chairman of an international nonprofit that focuses on using the power of sport to affect social change, a recent article from USA Today titled "Fun - Not Winning - Essential to Keep Kids in Sports" about children dropping out of organized sports struck a nerve.
Citing a recent study from George Washington University's Milken Institute School of Public Health, the article discussed that while many people may think it's all about winning for kids to have "fun" that actually is not the key factor for most kids. Of 81 "fun" factors surveyed, winning was well down the list, with the most commonly found influences being positive coaching, trying hard and being a good sport.
First off, the fact that kids aren't having fun playing sports raises huge red flags. Sports are a game, and especially for children, are meant to be fun. About 70 percent of kids stop playing organized sports by Middle School according to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. So by the time most children are 12 or 13 years old, they've already given up participating in sports to pursue other endeavors -- most of which are not going to provide the physical activity children require at that age to be healthy.
The "fun" factor in the study that stands out most to me is positive coaching. This brings to light a major problem in youth sports today -- the lack of quality coaches and mentors. At the youth level, coaches shouldn't be focused solely on winning and losing. Yes, teaching a certain level of competiveness is good for children, but coaching youth sports needs to be much more than that. Winning is great, but not at the expense of fun. Not at the young age of kids in middle school. For those that excel, they can be separated into more competitive leagues in order to not deter those that just want to play because they enjoy it.
We need coaches and mentors that are going to guide children and ingrain positive values and sportsmanship, while also highlight the importance of education and physical fitness to get kids on an overall path to success in life. As an Olympic Gold medalist, I appreciate the drive to win, but we have to understand that not every child is going to play professionally and sports are too important to children's well being to scare them away before they get to high school. Coaches need to recognize that and adapt their tactics accordingly. This is why a huge focus of the Sport for Good movement nationwide has been equipping coaches with the knowledge and skills necessary to effectively work with children and create these early positive experiences.
For example, Up2Us's Coach Across America program trains and places quality coaches in communities around the country where they'll have the most impact. Coaches undergo rigorous training in order to become certified in sports based youth development and then work with kids at sport existing for good programs. Another organization, Playworks trains coaches and places them into schools in low-income communities to oversee recess, therefore organizing the session to ensure elementary school students gain structured exercise and mentorship each school day while having fun.
And separately, Designed to Move is a call to action supported by a community of public, private and civil sector organizations dedicated to getting kids active. A joint effort of over 70 organizations worked to better understand the underlying issues related to physical inactivity. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education (ICSSPE) then joined to validate, refine, and publish the findings and an action plan that is used by organizations around the country.
These are just a few of the organizations that understand the positive impact good coaches have on kids, as there are plenty others involved in this movement. They didn't necessarily need a survey to tell them the reasons why kids drop out of organized sports. They see it every day and understand what it takes to engage children in healthy activities and keep them interested. These organizations are also cognizant of the fact that often times winning is valued more by coaches and parents than the kids themselves, and part of the job of the coach is to temper these expectations for the benefit of the children.
The benefits of organized sports on youth can't be ignored. Whether it's fighting obesity, improving graduation rates, reducing the risks of youth violence or inspiring confidence and mental health, research shows sports positively affect all of these. This is why the Sport for Good sector exists -- it's not to help build a basketball court so kids have a place to play, but instead to provide them with structured opportunities that put them on a path to success.
The USA Today story is important as it helps bring a serious, but often overlooked issue to the masses. Collectively, we need to make sports fun again for kids. After all, it's just a game, but the benefits are endless.