We live in an era where sports are ultra-competitive. Whether it's the NBA Finals or a 10-year-and-under AAU game, many people tie success solely to whether the game is won or lost. As a former Olympian, I understand the drive to win and the need for competition as much as anyone, but when is it too much? Holding young children to the same standard of winning as professional athletes is ultimately hurting our youth in more ways than many realize.
According to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, about 70 percent of kids stop playing organized sports by the time they hit middle school. Similarly, a study from the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., found that the number one reason kids cited for dropping out of sports is because they are no longer "fun." These findings are disturbing, and something that points to a need for a better balance between competition and fun in order to keep children active and playing.
When it comes to sport for development programs, we can't shy away from competition all together; however I believe there are ways for youth sports to shift away from the win-at-all-costs culture in order to embrace all of the benefits organized sports provide. Research shows that the positive effects of organized sports on kids go well beyond physical health and fighting obesity to also include emotional and psychological well-being, improved performance in the classroom and a reduction in crime and violence. Therefore, we need to provide a welcoming environment for those kids that may not want to compete at an elite level and offer them opportunities to continue playing in more relaxed situations.
USA Hockey is one organization taking a leading role on this issue, as it has implemented specific rules for their under-12 year old programs. This includes playing on a smaller rink, no checking allowed and no national champions crowned. The games still have a competitive nature, as the score is kept and kids are still playing to win the game, but the focus is more on learning the sport, building confidence, understanding teamwork and promoting sportsmanship that will help these kids both on the ice and off. Children under 12 years old don't need to win first, and USA Hockey's program has become a model for other organizations to follow as it enables coaches to keep the kids involved and gradually build to the point where the emphasis shifts to wins and losses. It is essential that when kids are under 12 years old we focus on developing their motor skills, teach game fundamentals, and promote their social and emotional learning.
However, leagues, coaches and sport for development programs can't do this alone. Parents need to play a large role in this movement too, as they are often the source of the ultra-competitiveness that places pressure on their kids to win. It's understandable that parents get emotional about their kids' sporting events and want to see them succeed, but we as a society often need to take a step back and realize what's really important for our youth.
Building an appreciation for sports and using them as a tool for healthy living should be our main focus until kids are more developed, both physically and emotionally. Our current culture is scaring many kids away from organized sports, and pushing them towards video games and the internet to where they're not getting the proper exercise or mentorship to help them lead a healthy lifestyle.
In many cases it's a delicate balance, and by no means do I want to downplay to positive impact competition can have on children. What we're trying to do is make sure there are structured opportunities for kids in all communities and encouraging those kids to stay active. Certain young athletes have exceptional talents and should be playing for wins and losses once they hit their teenage years, but we can't let this discourage others that just want to have fun from continuing to play and reaping the benefits from organized sports.