Somewhere along the way we began distracting our children away from what really matters, resulting in hollow awards and kids losing their childhoods. Everything, and I mean everything, has become a competition and adult driven. I don’t like the focus of youth sports these days, and in particular select club leagues, with it’s emphasis on winning and being the best. Girls can’t just cheer for their team; it’s got to be competitive cheer. The same goes for dance, every sport, and even cup stacking.
Cup stacking, now officially called sport stacking by the WCSA, (World Cup Stacking Association), is an individual and team sport that involves stacking specialized plastic cups in specific sequences in as little time as possible. What began in Oceanside California in 1981 as a fun diversion from traditional sports at a Boys and Girls Club became in 2001 the WCSA with formalized rules and worldwide competitions. You can’t even stack cups these days without a national championship breaking out. Adults got involved and ruined it for the kids.
I heard a story about a group of folks in a small town who loved music, so they gathered weekly for the camaraderie and for the sheer joy of making music, even if it didn’t always sound great. They enjoyed their jam sessions immensely until one day they decided to get a conductor for their little orchestra. This conductor had a lot of ambition and drive, and immediately set about making changes. He decided to put on a concert for the town, and gradually got rid of some of the members who didn’t play well, replacing them with professional musicians. The level of their music elevated and they got their names in the paper, at which time they decided to move to the big city to play in larger venues. Some of the old people lost their joy, exclaiming, “It was so wonderful in the old days when we did things badly and enjoyed them.”
That’s a good metaphor for what I see happening in youth sports. All of the practices, tournaments, intense coaches, and the pressures of competing for local and national championships have driven the love of the game right out of children. The focus should be on having fun and being with your friends, not winning. Life lessons abound when kids are at play: teamwork, learning how to be a good winner and loser, building skills, and developing determination and grit. Past generations learned these lessons primarily in unsupervised settings, i.e. down the street and in the woods. We experienced far less burnout and overuse injuries and we had fun making up our own rules and policing ourselves.
This national obsession with winning national championships came from parents and coaches, not kids. Throw kids out onto a field with a ball and bat and I promise you a game will break out, and they will look no different from kids in past generations. In order to make this happen, adults will have to stay at home and leave them be to create their own rules and supervise themselves. That’s when the best learning occurs, and also the opportunity for kids to play for play’s sake and for the love of the game.