Youth sports: The problem, say kids in a new poll, is adults

Youth sports, through the eyes of kids polled by i9 Sports, have a problem: the adults who run them. Eighty-four percent of kids said they either want to or have quit a team, and a third wish adults didn't watch their games because it makes them nervous.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
In a recent poll, kids say that the problem with youth sports is adults. In this 1999 file photo, a coach exhorts his 9 and 10 year-old baseball players. Their team is The Giants, and they played in the Newton North Little League.

Nothing in a recent survey by the national youth sports franchise i9 Sports that asked kids about their youth sports experiences surprised me in the least:

– Eighty-four percent said they have, at some point, either quit or wanted to quit a team.

– More than a third have witnessed a verbal argument between adults at their games.

– A third wished adults didn’t watch their games because the adults put too much pressure on them or make them nervous.

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A decade ago, while researching a story on youth sports for the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, I watched as a group of middle-aged men literally bid for the services of 12-year-old boys to play on their Little League teams, using points allocated by the local league.

Because points could be hoarded for future seasons, some were holding back waiting to build their dynasties. This “draft” was an annual ritual virtually unknown to the larger community and it took place in a poker game like atmosphere.

These men were already competing with each other, before the season even began. And once the male competitive ego enters the youth sports equation you have a recipe for disaster in which the needs of the children become subservient to the needs of the adults.

Bob Bigelow, a former first round NBA draft pick who played four NBA seasons, has been on a mission for two decades to give the games back to the kids. In speeches around the country he tells his mostly male audiences that their competitive egos mean nothing to the process and if they aren’t smiling at least 90 percent of the time they ought to resign.

Mr. Bigelow decries youth sports systems that seek to stratify young athletes at a very young age in the never-ending search for “talent.”
He wants to abolish all-star teams, travel teams and “elite” teams for kids and he wants adults to understand that all their brilliant coaching is usually well over the heads of the kids.

Developmentally, younger children don’t yet have the mental processing skills that allow them to understand position play in games like soccer and basketball where you have many players and a ball in constant motion. This is why 22 six-year-olds in a soccer game will all congregate near the ball.

And if you don’t understand that, you’re only going to be frustrated, and that’s likely to lead to some unhealthy interactions with the children.
Above all, Bigelow wants the kids to have fun by their definition, not the adults’.

Shortly after my youth sports story appeared in print, I attended a league meeting in the town where I’d watched the “auction” for young players. Routinely, there were always a couple of kids deemed at tryouts not to be Major League material (Majors being the Little League level where most 12 year-olds play).

Those few who didn’t make it were usually crushed that they’d no longer be able to play with their peers and lost interest altogether.

Why not allow all 12-year-olds to play in Majors? I asked.

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Incredibly, one long-time coach had an answer: Because, he said, it would dilute “the product” on the field.

When middle-aged men with general manager fantasies talk about the “product” when they’re coaching 12 year-olds you know you have a problem.

The days when kids organized their own games on the sandlot are long gone for the most part. Now adults in thousands of communities across the country spend untold hours organizing games for kids, and insinuating themselves into every aspect of the youth sports experience. Most are well-intentioned to be sure, but if you ask me what’s wrong with youth sports today, the simple answer would be this: adults.

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