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The Impending Crisis in Youth Sports

My most recent article for Breaking Muscle talks about what many of us now know— unless we do something soon to fix youth sports, the downward spiral will continue. The downward spiral includes a too early focus on sports specialization, too much pressure on kids to win at all cost, and underdevelopment of athleticism, all of which disenfranchise too many kids from not only sports but from meaningful physical activity across the life span.

What Sports Experience Should We Provide?

All of the ingredients necessary to Fill the Talent Pool already exist! We know, as the figure below illustrates, that all positive youth development programs should include positive physical, social, emotional, and cognitive components, which are often referred to as developmental assets.  The physical assets that helps kids improve all physical capacities have not been adequately developed in most sports programs.


It is the role of all youth sports parents, coaches, teachers, scientists, officials, and participants to take what we know about positive youth development and apply it to youth sports. To do that we must

  • give kids developmentally-appropriate instruction in motor skill acquisition
  • include proper strength and conditioning
  • make it fun
  • ask the kids for their input
  • establish a youth sports model that includes all developmental assets, with emphasis on the elementary years

The importance of  developing a long-term model that includes integration of skills across all sport platforms is crucial. Think of it like a terrific combination of physical education, sports, and play. Let’s give kids every opportunity to learn about movement, sports, and the social, cognitive, and emotional benefits that follow (if we purposefully include them in our programming). Only then can we truly Fill the Talent Pool.

How tall is your pyramid?

by: Rick Howard

Build the Base

According to Martin Rooney, author of Training for Warriors (not to mention awe-inspiring displays by Egyptians, Mayans, and esteemed mathematicians), a pyramid can only be as tall as its base. How does this revelation help you fill the talent pool?


All youth athletes need to develop a strong physical, social, and psychological foundation (the base of the youth development pyramid) in order to realize not only athletic potential but also to have the skills, confidence, and poise to be physically active for their entire lives. Unfortunately, however, the youth sport and the youth physical education/physical activity popular cultures are “built” on bases that are too narrow to support complete youth development at each youngster’s appropriate level.

What should youth sports be doing to build the base?

Youth sport programs must produce results to generate customers. But being the U-9 champs should NOT BE the primary objective. The focus should not be on the product (winning) but on the process (engaging). Less than 0.01 % of Little League World Series players ever play professional baseball.  Statistics on the ever-elusive-college-scholarship are equally as dismal. The pressure to win often leads to burnout, injury, and discontinuation not only in the sport but in physical activity, in general. The result youth sports programs SHOULD BE producing is successful movers in a variety of environments, with an eye on continued improvement, enjoyment, and participation (did you know that 70% of kids drop out of youth sports by age 13?).

Is being physically active enough?

The physical education/physical activity paradigm has shifted emphasis from building a strong foundation through motor skill development, sports skills, tactics and strategies, and positive attitude toward games, fitness, and sport to what they call lifetime fitness activities (defined by adults, not kids). These activities include: walking, jogging, swimming, tennis, and weight training. While part of an active lifestyle, shouldn’t all youth be exposed to a variety of sports and activities so that they can make the choice which one(s) to continue throughout the lifespan? The answer, of course, is YES!!  Physical fitness (improving qualities like strength, endurance, balance, power, and speed) has been replaced with health-fitness (which, in theory would help kids decrease risk of cardiovascular disease, low back pain, etc. but has not been longitudinally measured) and includes cardiorespiratory endurance, muscle strength and endurance, flexibility and body composition.

Lifetime fitness activities and health-related fitness are only a piece of the puzzle, certainly not enough to build a pyramid. Sports are often what excite kids to exercise, be outdoors, go to school, etc. (It’s no accident that the spokespersons for most fitness and activity programs are athletes, with whom kids (and adults) can identify— —not low back pain specialists or cardiologists). By focusing on the end-product of being moderately to vigorously active within a very narrow performance base, with no measurement of progress of becoming proficient movers, is selling our kids short.

How you can broaden the base to help Fill the Talent Pool

So, how do you broaden the base of the pyramid with positive physical, social, and psychological skills to make the pyramid be as tall (leading to physically literacy) as possible? Include, at all developmental stages, for both boys and girls:

  • Physical components, such as strength building, agility and balance, speed, and fundamental motor skills, incorporated into a variety of sports and games opportunities
  • Social components, such as trying different activities with different groups of youngsters, providing non-structured play opportunities, and ensuring that a consistent message of sportsmanship, camaraderie, and teamwork permeates the organization
  • Psychological components, such as providing positive experiences that lead to the development of intrinsic motivation, matching youngsters to sports and activities that are age-related, not age-determined, and knowing how to provide proper cues and feedback at different stages of development,

The incredible challenge is that not every child is at the same developmental level at the same time and developmental progress is not always linear (i.e. there may be some back-sliding along the way—that’s ok!). The base of the pyramid does not need to be a regimented program of drills and exercises but a carefully thought out plan (which involves your aspiring lifelong sport/physical activity participant) that balances youth sport, physical education, structured and unstructured play, and being a kid!

Keep filling the talent pool!!



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