Supporting Non-competitive Activity

This article is from the Go animal website

All is not well in the world of youth sports. An increasing number of coaches, educators and physicians are beginning to point to serious problems in the hyper-competitive culture of youth athletics.

The primary problem

The fundamental problem in youth sports is professionalization, the tendency to mimic the system and culture of pro sports. Professional
sports are constructed around the systematic elimination of weaker players and weaker teams. This restricts participation at a time when we should be doing precisely the opposite–encouraging more widespread participation in vigorous movement.
Professionalization leads to an emphasis on achievement over experience and in the process, turns play into work. Professionalization also leads to narrow movement specialization, increasing refinement of single movement types over broad-based physical education. Orthopedic physicians and physical therapists agree that specialization leads to higher rates of injury and eventual burnout.

My objective

As a physical educator, my goal is to promote sustainable habits of movement that last a lifetime. The key to health and weight management lies, not in a competitive victory, but in frequent, vigorous movement that extends across the lifespan. This sustainability is best achieved through diversity, pleasure and joyful experience. The whole point of childhood physical education should be to get kids to fall in love with movement. Today’s hyper-competitive youth sports culture fails to deliver this fundamental quality.

Where’s the fun?

The statistics are revealing. According to, 70% of kids drop out of youth sports by age 13. The top 3 reasons kids drop out are “adults, coaches and parents.”
Surveys show that 90% of kids would rather play on a “losing” team than sit on the bench of a winning team. In other words, kids want to play.

The common objections:

Advocates for hyper-competitive youth sports say that we need to prepare kids for the competitive realities of the adult world. But competition is only one aspect of adult life. Adulthood is characterized by a diversity of challenges–some competitive, some cooperative, some creative. Kids can prepare for adulthood in many ways, including creative, self-directed play. Many children go on to success in life without any youth sports experience whatsoever. Science, language arts and music also offer good preparation for adult life.
Advocates for intense competition also say that today’s kids are too soft and that they need hardening through head-to-head competition. While it’s true that many of today’s kids are in poor condition, it’s participation–not elimination–that offers the most promising solution. Physical play doesn’t have to be competitive to be robust; there are plenty of vigorous games that don’t rely on the pro model.

Who’s it for?

The question becomes increasingly more compelling with every passing year. That is, “Who are youth sports for?” Is the purpose to fulfill adult fantasies of athletic glory? Or is it to benefit kids? As it stands, this is not at all clear. While some programs take children’s welfare as the first priority, others seem to be little more than adult fantasy camps. Critics of youth sports now point to the increasing domination of childhood by overbearing adults. “Adult imperialism” and “adultism” are frequently cited as genuine concerns.

Sports Illustrated

Even traditional pro-sports publications are beginning to recognize the trend. The November 18, 2002 issue of Sports Illustrated ran a special report “The High School Athlete.” Author Alexander Wolff noted that “The win-at-all-costs coaches and preprofessional priorities commonplace in college sports have seeped into grades 12, 11, 10 and below….As coaches demand year-round proof of dedication, kids spend a greater and greater proportion of time practicing rather than playing…” He also notes “a marked trend toward specialization.”

Overuse injuries

Not surprisingly, increased movement specialization leads to more frequent injury and in the long run, decreased participation in vigorous movement. A 2005 New York Times article declared that “Doctors See a Big Rise in Injuries as Young Athletes Train Nonstop.” Author Bill Pennington cited comments by several prominent pediatric orthopedists who remarked on the rising tide of overuse injuries including stress fractures, growth plate disorders, tendon injuries and torn knee ligaments. Obviously, we are pushing these kids too hard.

Solutions and alternatives

We are not stuck with the standard menu of competitive youth sports. There are many alternatives. Begin by de-emphasizing competition and letting kids do some of their own play-making. Let them organize neighborhood pick-up games. Let them play basketball with a football or field hockey on bicycles. Then use your imagination to invent new movement challenges. Make yourself a role model, not as a spectator, but as a participant in vigorous movement. Expose children to a wide range of physical activities, both competitive and non-competitive. There are plenty of alternatives, everything from hiking to rockclimbing to biking to Frisbee. The more diversity, the greater the chance that they’ll fall in love with movement.