Photo: Courtesy of Roberto Caruso
Each player on the Leaside Leafs displays an impressive amount of athletic ability and commitment to training. The members of this AAA baseball team (the highest division in Ontario youth baseball) practise three times a week in North Toronto and play games every weekend, with added tournaments and exhibitions throughout the summer. Some of them cram in hitting or fielding or pitching clinics on the side to build their skills. Competition to make the team was fierce this year—70 athletes were whittled down to 12 over a three-day tryout. There were tough decisions, tough breaks and even some tears. Which is not terribly surprising, given that this particular lineup of could-be Bautistas and Donaldsons is made up of seven-year-olds.
In competitive youth sports, kids are started down the path to excellence earlier and earlier. It’s completely different from the way things were when coach Jesse Harrison was playing ball. “When I was Thomas’s age,” he says, referring to his son who plays on the Leafs (Leaside, not Maple), “I was throwing around a ball at the park with my siblings and parents.” In some ways, that is exactly what’s going on today, as the kids run drills before the practice game. There are gap-toothed grins, tiny chest bumps and plenty of monkey business (“Pay attention!” is among coach Harrison’s most frequently repeated instructions). When he says times have changed, he’s talking about how the once-folksy pastime of kids playing sports has become a complex activity focused on winning at all costs.
To be clear: Harrison isn’t a “keep no scores,” “get a trophy for showing up” kind of guy. And while he’s certainly seen examples of parents living out their own school-days sports fantasies through the next generation, he says most of the kids on his team are self-driven. “Thomas would be happy to play baseball every day if we let him,” he says. But since seven-year-olds don’t get to make those kinds of decisions, coach Harrison thinks the leagues and the parents have a responsibility to address how fun and fitness are becoming casualties of such a results-focused atmosphere. In both baseball and hockey (which his son plays during the winter), he has seen team members as young as six suffering from anxiety and showing the signs of emotional burnout. “As coaches, as parents, we need to be helping kids avoid things like fear, pressure, anxiety,” he says. “The fact that we’re talking about seven-year-olds as ‘elite’ is just insane.”
Harrison recently applied to join the board of his local baseball league because he wants to fight back against the current trend toward year-round training in any one sport. Summer sports are for summer, he says, and winter sports are for winter: “Kids need time to do other things. We want them to become well-rounded human beings.”
Whether these two goals are still compatible, especially at the increasingly competitive level of rep and division leagues, is an issue being debated on bleachers and at team barbecues and league board meetings across North America, where youth sport is in the midst of a crisis. Professionalization, adultification, specialization—these are the buzzwords being used to describe a new playing field where the focus has shifted toward churning out high-performance athletes and (just as crucially) away from objectives like fitness, overall athleticism and fun. Pricey private lessons, off-season clinics, over-the-top time commitments and the pressure to pick a single sport at an early age all reflect the priorities of system in which kids barely old enough to read their names on the backs of custom jerseys are being plucked from their local house leagues and placed on the competitive track.
The shift has been good for business: In North America, youth sports has ballooned into a $15-billion industry—up from $7 billion just four years ago. But with overall participation numbers dropping, anxiety and overuse injuries on the rise, and a troubling decline in general physical literacy among Canadian children, the more important question might be whether the current state of competitive youth sport is good for kids.
It all starts so innocently: A kid joins the neighbourhood house league, shows the slightest bit of aptitude, and a coach from one of the more competitive leagues (rep, division, academy—the terminology varies depending on the sport and location) will suggest taking it to the next level. “In the house leagues, you have the five-year-olds who are rolling in the grass or picking flowers, and then you have the kids who are really into it,” says Kate Atkins*, whose son was in that latter group and plays both soccer and hockey. “He was obviously enjoying the experience, so we wanted to support that.” And from there, she says, the system has a way of sucking kids and parents in—the camps, the private lessons. “There is certainly no shortage of ex-pro athletes offering extra clinics, specialized training—speed, skating edges, flexibility, whatever you want, it’s there,” says Atkins. And, of course, none of it is free. (It can cost around $2,000 for a kid to play in a rep baseball league per season, coach Harrison notes.)
Atkins had a moment of clarity when her son’s rep socccer coach insisted on full attendance throughout the summer, a time commitment that would eat into his school break. Both Atkins and her husband grew up playing a lot of different sports, and they feel there’s plenty to be gained from being part of a team. But at a certain point, it was just too much. “Here we are spending a totally insane amount of money and time, and it’s like: Who are we kidding here? Most of these kids are heading to the same beer league.”
Atkins felt as if it were a case of all or nothing. She chose nothing, and pulled him out of soccer. “I want my kids to play sports, but I also want to take a family vacation; I want them to go to camp; I want them to have a life!”
Jasmine Rivas* says soccer is her 12-year-old son’s life, for now, and she’s OK with that. From the start, it has always been his decision. She and her husband are big basketball fans and tried to push things in that direction. “For Jaden, though, it was always soccer, soccer, soccer. When he’s not playing, he’s watching it on TV or playing soccer video games,” Rivas says. Jaden plays the sport five or six days a week, 12 months a year, including two week-long skills development camps in July and August. A few times a year, he also attends ID Soccer Camp, where scouts from around the world come to identify future superstars. It’s a significant expense, but, says Rivas, “if it’s for his future, it’s worth it.”
A subsidized ride to a great school and maybe even a career in the majors is the fantasy a lot of moms and dads are buying into—“buying” being the keyword. And as pro athlete salaries have skyrocketed in the past decade, more and more parents are dreaming of their kid making it to the big leagues, says Glen Mulcahy, an ex-football player, a youth coach and a founder of Paradigm Sports, a youth athletics advocacy group. “Parents get these hopes in spite of the extraordinary odds to the contrary,” he says. “And then you look at the money they’re sinking into hockey or soccer, or whatever it is, and you think—there’s your scholarship.”
The early specialization model—defined as playing the same sport more than nine months a year to the exclusion of other sports before the age of 13—first became popular following the 1956 Winter Olympics, when the Soviet athletes shocked the world by cleaning up in the medal department for the first time. We now know a lot of that hardware had more to do with doping than any particular training methods, but the correlation between relentless practice and victory has endured. Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 bestselling book, Outliers (in which he argued it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert), as well as the widely distributed videos of a teeny, tiny two-year-old Tiger Woods sinking putts were key factors in legitimizing the more-is-more approach to excellence.
It’s a romantic narrative, but Mulcahy says parents would do better to look at the success of 2015 Masters champ Jordan Spieth, who only began to focus on golf when he was 13. Or Canadian basketball phenom Steve Nash, who spent his early years skateboarding and playing soccer. “Nash never touched a basketball until he was 12 years old,” he says. The fact that these guys were multi-sport athletes is what allowed them to excel as quickly as they did when it was time.”
In other words, even if your kid is the next Great One (but, seriously, she’s not), early single-sport specialization is not the best way to get them there. And in fact, the mental and physical pressure associated with too much, too soon is far more likely to push kids (the future superstars and the other 99.8 percent) away. A study conducted by the charitable foundation True Sport shows 70 percent of Canadian youth athletes are leaving team sports by the time they enter high school. “They’re putting up the white flag. They’re saying, ‘This is too much—I don’t want to do it anymore,’” says Mulcahy. And often they are leaving sport for good.
“When we look at the purported goals of youth sport and what’s actually happening, it’s obvious that things have gotten off track,” says Jessica Fraser-Thomas, a kinesiologist at York University whose research focuses on youth development through sport, as well as lifelong sport participation trajectories. In the past, these two agendas—to develop as a young athlete and to enjoy a lifetime of physical fitness—have been aligned, but early specialization and the increased focus on high performance are changing that.
For her doctoral thesis, Fraser-Thomas studied two groups of swimmers. Group A had specialized early (at age eight) and during adolescence had dropped out of competitive swimming. Group B waited until later to commit to a single sport. The research found that while the two groups showed no difference in terms of skill, the kids who had specialized early were more likely to quit due to burnout and other psychological issues associated with overtraining. Not only that, they were less likely to enjoy swimming for fun—say, at a cottage or in a friend’s pool—as adults.
“These kids are not becoming more competitive, they’re not becoming better—they’re becoming bitter,” says John O’Sullivan, founder of Changing the Game, in his popular TEDx Talk on youth sport. Fraser-Thomas points out that there are currently few (if any) options for teens who want to play sports at a recreational level. Instead, she says, we have a pyramid system: “We’re filtering a lot of people in very young, but we’re losing them very quickly, and putting huge investments in a select few. Do we call that a sports system for all?”
The casualties are no joke when you consider the implications. The current generation is the first in history that may have a shorter life expectancy than their parents, due to health issues resulting from a decrease in physical activity. In the latest Participaction report, Canadian kids earned a D+ in overall physical activity. Which may seem at odds with the scores of children devoting hours a week to sports, but it’s not, given the correlation between competitive training and early burnout. (Often, at that point, kids won’t consider house league—they don’t want to play anything.) And let’s not forget about those kids who spend the majority of practice warming the bench while the team stars get all of the coach’s focus.
Early specialization has also been the catalyst for a huge rise in overuse injuries, as young athletes fail to develop the basic building blocks of physicality before putting strain on specific joints and muscles. “A young person’s skeletal system is still maturing. It doesn’t have the strength of adult bone, making it vulnerable to injury,” says Dwight Chapin, the team chiropractor for the Toronto Argonauts and a AAA baseball coach of a team of 11- to 12-year-olds. It’s increasingly common, he says, to see kids who can take a slapshot but lack things like balance and core strength. They may perform at a high level on the ice, but outside the arena, they lack coordination.
In the US, between 2007 and 2011, nearly 60 percent of Tommy John elbow surgeries—named after the MLB pitcher who was the first to undergo the tendon replacement procedure (after 10 years of major league baseball)—were performed on male athletes ages 15 to 19. Even more disturbing, Mulcahy knows of kids who have the surgery, even when they don’t need it. “They think it’s going to give them a bionic arm. And their parents are supporting them,” he says.
In 2015, Mulcahy founded Paradigm Sports, an organization devoted to promoting multi-sport athleticism and coach development. In theory, most of Canada’s major sporting organizations agree with him. In June, Tom Renney, CEO of Hockey Canada, addressed the early specialization issue by imploring hockey parents to have their kids play anything but hockey over the summer: “I would really like to stress the fact that multi-sport athleticism is critical for the development of a child.”
It’s a great message, and clearly an important one, but for a lot of parents, it’s also a lot easier said than done. And it’s perhaps a little disingenuous coming from the same sporting authorities that have created the current system. “You hear ‘don’t specialize, don’t specialize’—do you know how hard that is?” says Jennifer Kulchyski*, whose 13-year-old son is playing hockey and soccer—for now. “I got the hockey coach to agree to let him leave early every other Friday to go to soccer, and the soccer coach to give us one more year with hockey.” Kulchyski jokes that half of her mom friends are in the same position, while the other half (those who aren’t caught up in the whole competitive sport system) think she’s a martyr. “I get it,” she says of that second group. “If you’re not in it, it’s hard to understand. There is just so much pressure to keep up.”
In her practice as a mental performance coach, Beth McCharles works with high-performance athletes of all ages to help them manage the emotional and psychological demands around competition. Over the past decade, she says it’s been disconcerting to see how early the debilitating pressure is being felt. “Anxiety among kids is rising like you wouldn’t believe—it’s young people who are feeling so stressed out about not performing at their best and letting their parents down,” McCharles says. This pressure of expectation sometimes makes kids decide to quit rather than fail. And while most of us tend to associate parental pressure with horrible hockey dads hurling expletives at six-year-olds, the reality is that damaging behaviour is often subtler: It’s the parent who reminds their kid that they had to take time off work to get them to practice or alludes to the financial investment being made or focuses too much on outcomes.
“We tell our kids, ‘You’re great, you’re special, you can do this,’ but we need to be teaching them it’s OK to make mistakes,” says McCharles. “Sports are about experiencing being the best and being the worst. That’s all lived experience that kids are missing out on.” McCharles looks at what else kids might be missing out on with an exercise in which she will ask a young client to tell her about their schedule. It’s a chance for her to assist with time-management skills, but there’s a more significant purpose. “It gives me an opportunity to ask, ‘When do you have time to play?’”
The answer, for many kids, is that they don’t—at least not in the unstructured way that’s key to the development of independence, imagination and resilience. “We’ve almost engineered play-based activity out of our kids’ lives,” says Fraser-Thomas. She shares a telling anecdote about a dad who explained that if he was going to devote the time to take his son to the park to play, he might as well enrol him in a skills development camp. “This is the way parents think today: How can I help my child to be better?”
Youth sports aren’t the only thing that has become more competitive. Parents are under enormous pressure to make sure their children aren’t just winning trophies, but that they are trophies. “Parents today are huge stakeholders in their children’s lives—it’s not just sports, it’s also academics and social,” says McCharles. Adding to the pressure are new and powerful enemies in the form of social media and screens.
A friend of mine whose kids both play competitive hockey 11 months a year notes that we have an overly romantic notion of free play: “There’s this idea that if my kids weren’t playing sports they’d be running around in a field or something, but the reality is they’d be playing video games,” he says. Which is probably true. Still, Mulcahy says parents may want to take a look at what it is that kids find so addictive about video games and apply that to sports IRL: “When kids are playing a video game, they do their best, they die, they get a new life, they start again. There’s no pressure; there’s nobody telling them what to do. It’s just fun,” Mulcahy says. “I think there’s something we can learn there.”
And there are some signs the learning has begun. Recently, teams in Ontario and BC have harmonized the schedules for soccer and hockey so kids don’t have to choose one over the other. A recent public service announcement titled “Change It Up” was released in partnership with Hockey Canada, Baseball Canada, the Canadian Soccer Association and the Canadian Olympic Committee. The 30-second YouTube spot shows famous Canadian athletes playing sports other than the ones they’re famous for (Olympic hockey champ Marie-Philip Poulin swinging a baseball bat; Atlanta Braves pitcher Mike Soroka kicking a soccer ball).
For his part, coach Harrison ends baseball practice with some kind of game: freeze tag, British Bulldog—tonight it’s soccer. The kids get to run around, engage in different movement patterns and just have fun. When they run back to the bleachers, one of the parents asks what the best part of practice was. “The soccer!” a bunch of kids yell out. “Who won?” Another parent asks. Nobody remembers.
*Names have been changed