Reframe: Episode 57

Make Youth Sport About Children. Not Adults.

learning to play hockey

In the first of a two-part series on youth sport, Melissa Chase, Miami University professor of sport leadership and management, and co-author of the recent book, Best Practice for Youth Sport, talks about how youth sport has become more about the adults and less about the children, why this a growing problem, and what parents can do about it.

Read the transcript

James Loy:

This is Reframe, the podcast from the College of Education, Health and Society on the campus of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

(Music Fade)

There was a common saying that once went along with youth sport. “It’s all about the kids,” people would say. But that was also back when it was more about teamwork, and good sportsmanship, or just having fun.

Today, however, critics say youth sports, in many cases, has become much more about the adults. Which has led to a hyper-competitive culture that’s pushing kids to become elite athletes at younger and younger ages.

In their recent book, Best Practice for Youth Sport, Miami University professors Melissa Chase and Robin Vealey, explore just how much youth sport has changed. So on this episode, we talk to Melissa Chase about some of these trends, and about what parents and coaches can do about it.

Dr. Chase, thank you so much for being on the podcast. I was hoping to learn more about your background in this area, and why this is such an important field of study now?

Melissa Chase:

I would say my overall research, or the research in the 28 years that I've that have been here at Miami, has really focused on youth sport participation, and the positive outcomes from children being involved in sport. And I come at this topic from a sports psychology background. And, specifically, I’m interested in self-efficacy and coaching efficacy, which to me says what effects do self-beliefs in your confidence, in your abilities, how does that influence performance and motivation? And in general, what we know, is -- and this is for kids and also for adults -- that if you are more confident or efficacious in your beliefs about your abilities in a variety of sports, or activities, you're more likely to be motivated. Meaning you'll put forth more effort. You'll choose to do it. And you'll persist more in the face of failure.

And so, we've looked at youth sport from a motivational standpoint. From a performance standpoint. In how can we make this a better sport experience for kids? And, of course, two main factors in that would be the coach, and how effective the coach is in his or her behavior. And also parents. And, of course, we know that parents have a huge influence on not only their kids’ participation. But all aspects of a sport.

So I've looked at it more from a coaching perspective. I’m interested in coaching confidence or coaching efficacy, early on. More recently, and a lot of this has been graduate student driven, is I've really gotten into the area of talent development. So how can we -- as researchers and parents and coaches -- structure an environment that really fosters better talent development in children? And I think it coincides a lot with the idea of having an effective, efficacious environment that motivates kids. Because we as a society are really focused on talent development.

James Loy:

So how much has it changed in recent years? It naturally makes me think back to my experiences in little league and stuff like that. It seems like a lot different from how I remember youth sport being.

Melissa Chase:

It's totally changed. It used to be that the structure of youth sport was very much more around informal play. And I’ll go back to my youth sport experiences. We didn't have a youth sport specialized select travel team experience for every single sport I wanted to play. We had probably some youth sport leagues, which had youth sport coaches and we played during that particular sports season. And then we would move on and play another sport. There was a lot more free play, which meant when you came home from school, you and your friends would grab a ball and you'd go play. That's not the case anymore for most kids. And I’m talking even eight to thirteen, when we think kids should be sampling sports. Right. Go play as many sports as possible, and get some experience and develop a lot of good fundamental motor skills, and enjoy it, and have a great experience. Those sampling years are becoming fewer and fewer and fewer. So this gets into the idea of this sport specialization.

So what we see now with a lot of youth sport experiences are: They're all adult driven. They're coached by people who may be good coaches or may not. That's where parents come in. Because a lot of times they're parent coached, which a lot of our research shows that's not necessarily the best experience for kids, parents, or coaches. And the seasons have become longer. More competitive. And coaches and parents have started saying, look to develop talent in my kid, or my athlete, you need to specialize. You shouldn't be playing multiple sports. Because here's what's going to happen. You're playing all kinds of different sports. But the other athletes you're competing against, they're playing that one sport, and they're playing it year-round, and they now have a specialized skill coach, and they have a specialized physical conditioning coach, and they have a nutritionist, and then ….

So, the model of what used to be more professional sport has really trickled down to the point where now we see kids that are eight, nine, 10, who should be, again, multiple … sample sports. Try all kinds of different activities. They're really pigeon-holed now. This is the sport they're going to do. They're going to do it year-round, in a very specialized manner, in order to move on to an elite level. When we know very few kids move on to that elite, professional. Even a Division 1 scholarship athlete. There's very few and athletes, or kids, that move on to that to that level. So we've really gotten into this idea of looking at, yeah, diversification of sports versus sports specialization, more recently in terms of our research.

James Loy:

I recently saw an article, it was from the Vancouver Sun, and it had this stat that said only 6% of high school athletes ever go on to play in college. And only 2% go on to a professional career of any kind. So that speaks to, again, that being a very low percentage of people that actually do make it to this level. So, what is driving this shift, do you think, in the culture of youth sport? Is it just our attitude towards the idea to emphasize success and achievement? Or is it unrealistic parent expectations? What’s driving the change?

Melissa Chase:

I think probably unrealistic parent expectations has probably always been around. I mean, I think it's just typical parent behavior that you think your kid’s maybe a little more talented than he or she is. I think that there's just so much more opportunity now for sport participation than there used to be. So there wasn't all these leagues maybe when you and I were growing up. Now there's all kinds of competitive leagues at all different levels, that if you have the money, your kid can play. And they will play. There's more sport facilities, gyms and training centers, for kids to play. I think it's just more opportunity. There's more specialized opportunity than there used to be.

James Loy:

On the surface, it makes sense on why specialization has become a part of youth sport, especially if you have coaches who are saying, Well, other kids have been doing this since the day they could walk. So, of course we have to keep up. Intuitively, you might think there are extra benefits. But what is the reality there? What are some of the darker or negative aspects of specialization?

Melissa Chase:

Well, there's all kinds of negative aspects for the majority of kids. Those would be burnout. That would probably be number one. And we see that with college athletes, even. They've worked so hard in order to become a collegiate athlete. So they've been playing this sport -- think about it. They've been playing this particular sport and probably only this sport since maybe they were eight to 10. Maybe younger. But they probably really ramped it up when they got to be a middle school age. So they're 13 to 18, right. 13 to 18-year-olds, we find that, boy, they've really ramped up, right. They are year round, and all the specialized training. 

And so, when you've been playing for that long. Let's say 15 years. You've been playing 15 years, maybe for some of these kids, 10 to 15. Before you even become a collegiate athlete, of course you're going to burn out. You've been doing it, again, year-round at a very intense level. And now you get to collegiate athletics, which is also ramped up in terms of the amount of time -- individual, strength and conditioning, film sessions, the competitive season, the offseason, which there really isn't one. Yeah. I mean, it’s a recipe for burnout.

Now, for some kids who, I would say, they just love the sport. And it's not the same for every kid. I do think there are kids that are just so passionate about that sport and they are so driven that there isn’t a risk of burn out. There is a realistic risk of injury, especially, again, if you started the sport so early, and the specific skills are so specialized, you can very easily lead to injury. Because overuse. Just based on overuse. Because you're only doing those specific skills, and your body never trains in a different way. So again, it's the same scenario. You're doing one specific skill, 10 to 15 years, and then you get to a higher level. Of course you could have overuse injuries. Injuries and burnout, I think, are probably the two most concerning types of adverse effects from specializing.

James Loy:

And what are the benefits to the other side of that? Diversification. Is it better to diversify?

Melissa Chase:

Yeah. Oh, I think it's definitely better to diversify. And one of the interesting research studies that we've done, one of my graduate students, we looked at coach’s’ perceptions of specializing versus playing multiple sports. High school coaches. And it's interesting. Almost all high school coaches will say, no, I want you to play multiple sports. That's better, right. Play a bunch of different sports. That would be better. But they think their competition is not doing that. They think their competition is telling their kids to specialize. So it's almost …

It's a hidden message, right. No, go play other sports, but, oh, by the way, you need to be here for offseason. And if you're not here for offseason, forget it. You're not starting, right. You're not starting next year. I’m gonna go with the kids that do specialize, and play year-round.

So, it's an interesting mixed message. The benefits of diversification and multiple sports would be, again, you would tend to not have burnout, right. Because you're with a different group of kids, for the most part. You're with a different coach, probably. It's a totally different season, right. It would it would be a change of pace. So you're less likely to be burned out. On playing the same sport over and over again. Overuse injuries become less of an issue. Because you're probably using different skills, right. Different muscles and different things. So playing multiple sports tends to help to combat some of those issues with sports specialization. Also, giving kids time out, or time off, again, just to regroup, and to rest, and, again, look at look at different activities to do.

Also, kids might want to do a non-sport activity. There's nothing wrong with that also, right? Be a part of band, or music, or be in a school play, or something like that. So I think, in general -- and probably education would say this -- is that there is so much more pressure and stress put on kids in order to do all kinds of activities, to get into a good college, or just to be involved. And so, they're under a lot of pressure. Kids are under a lot more pressure, I think, at the high school age. And so, they could use the benefits of doing a lot of different activities. Just for the pure fun of it, right. So, yes, that's why, again, there's a lot of more benefits with multiple sports. If a kid chooses to do that, then I think to specialize.

James Loy:

A little bit earlier you mentioned that some of your current work is focused more on talent development. So could you explain a bit more about what that is? What does that involve?

Melissa Chase:

Yeah. So, again, I’ve had some graduate students here in our master's program that have gone on … actually they're doing PhD work now at Michigan State. But they looked at parent involvement. That was a really interesting study. One of our students looked at parent perfectionism and parenting style and their views on specialization.

And so, what we found is, in general, because parents have so much influence on kids, that their views on specialization will matter. There's certain parenting styles … I’ll say maybe not as positive towards their child's well-rounded development. If they're more of a perfectionist. If they're more authoritative. They tend to be parents who pursue sports specialization more.

So, when you start to look at parents, a lot of times what you find is parents have a different agenda than the student athlete. And when you're on different agendas, it tends to hurt, I think, the student athlete, right. I think all athletic participation should be student athlete driven. And not parent driven. It's not about the parents. It's about the kid. So that's some interesting research.

And then we've looked at, again, coach’s perspective in terms of sports specialization. Do, in particular, high school coaches even make it possible for kids to play multiple sports? Again, even though they think they should, a lot of coaches, send the message that they send is, no, you have to choose. Play my sport or not. So I think what you would actually find, if you looked at high schools, not a lot of kids play three sports anymore. I mean, when I, again, my experience growing up, everybody played three sport. Now most kids, they choose just one sport.

James Loy:

Now, with that in mind, with this better clearer idea of the overall culture of youth sport today, what are some of the practical applications of your research? Or what are some of the best practices, or advice you might have for people who do want to improve the experience for young athletes? Maybe especially for parents who do want the best for their children, maybe they are just misinformed on what negatives specialization can actually bring, for example. So what are some dos and don’ts for parents?

Melissa Chase:

Yeah, so, I think, advice to parents who think sport is a good idea. One is: Make sure that their child thinks sport is a good idea. I really think this has to be child driven. Meaning, you've got to be able to read your child and make sure it's the child who's motivated to do all this, and not you. Because you see it a lot where a child just is there only because their parents signed them up. There has to be some love of the activity coming from the kid. So read your kid, and make sure they really are truly interested in doing that.

And then, what is their motive? Because kids play sports for all kinds of different reasons. And, in fact, if you ask them, most of them will say that because it's fun. So put your kid in a sport activity that's fun. Meaning, there's a good coach, who keeps things in perspective. It's not all about winning. And the child gets to play. Because play is more fun. So, it should be about fun and enjoying that.

I think parents should monitor coaches pretty closely. And make sure that the coach is going to create a really good learning environment. And, sometimes, we as parents in sports situations, allow coaches to get away with way too much that's just not appropriate. So it's not appropriate to make an eight-year-old decide that you have to choose one sport and practice it year-round. Monitor that.

The other thing specifically parents can do is be aware of how you interact with your child. I mean, there's some very basic guidelines. Talk about effort, not ability. Effort is something your child can control. And effort is always a really good thing. Right. No parent would say, hey, oh don't worry about it. Don't work hard, right. You can always talk about effort. And don't talk about the outcome. Don't talk about wins and losses. When you talk to a child after a game, or a competition, talk about their effort. And the amount of work that they put in. How hard they worked. That's always a good thing. Don't over emphasize winning or outcome or scoring. So the parent who says to their kid, you scored five goals! Isn't that great! You're so good! I mean, as a parent, it's hard not to recognize ability and outcome. Because it's so easily identified. But if your child is eight and he scores three goals or five goals, it doesn't really matter, right. In the big picture of things, that's really not…. But parents get caught up in that, right. They get caught up in any signs of early talent. They get sucked in. They get drawn into, oh, my kid’s going to be good, right?

So I would say, keep it in perspective, right. If your kid is having fun and they're developing some skills and they're enjoying the social environment and they're getting in shape and enjoying that physical activity, then it's probably a good experience.

James Loy:

I imagine that it must be exciting, almost intoxicating, right? Even for parents who have the best intentions, who start out with this frame of mind of, okay, I’m not going to get too excited about this. But once … you know, you can get swept up in that. Like, oh my goodness, my child might be this next superstar.

Melissa Chase:

Yes. It's very easy. And so, reminding themselves …. Those statistics you had. Only a very small percentage are going to make it to a college, and even worse, to an elite. Because what I hear a lot from parents are … I mean, they're under this misperception that their child starts to show a little bit of talent, and they're going to get a college scholarship. I’m gonna do this, so that they can get a college scholarship. And there are there are stats out there, the amount of money that parents spend in high school and middle school in order for their child to get a college education, could pay for a college education.

James Loy:

That’s a great example. That shows, I think, how passionate and involved parents can be, certainly. But there are students who make it. There are a few who make it to that level. So I guess I’m just curious about parents who may still have these nagging doubts of, oh, maybe if I just encouraged my child to do this or do that, maybe they could have made it to that next level.

So I’m curious about is that raw talent usually pretty obvious. Is it just there? Are their certain points where no extra parental involvement just doesn’t matter anymore?

Melissa Chase:

Well, there's always exceptions, of course. But I think, in my experience, that if a middle school/high school athlete is going to make it to Division 1 you're going to know it. And they could play multiple sports. That that ability is there. As a parent, I think, if you just support their interest and motivation to do it, they'll make it there. I think, as a parent, you could almost do more harm than good by signing them up for too many select teams. Too many specialized coaches. Producing situations where they're going to become burnout. Because you've let them play that sport year-round, now they're going to three different camps. The total pressure. I mean, those, again, as a parent, you can control that. You could say, no, I think you need a month off. No, you don't need to go to that elite camp. Because I think you need some time off.

And, you know what? That shouldn't be the purpose of sport. The purpose of sport should not be to get a college scholarship. Or to become a professional athlete. I think the purpose of sport participation, youth middle and high school, again, is to have an enjoyable experience, and get the benefits of sport. Like understanding teamwork and competition and working hard and the enjoyment, and the lessons that come with winning and losing. Success and failure. Those are really good experiences to have as an adult.

James Loy:

Absolutely. Wonderful. Alright. Well, thank you so much for that look inside the cultural aspects of youth sport. And thank you so much for being on the podcast.

Melissa Chase is a Miami University professor of sport leadership and management, and her recent book, written with her colleague and co-author Robin Vealey, is called Best Practice for Youth Sport.

On the next episode of the podcast, we will explore this topic from another angle, by looking at youth sport from a coaching perspective.

Thelma Horn:

What we found, from more of a developmental perspective, is if kids are involved in youth sport settings, gradually the coach’s feedback starts to become more important. Particularly between ages of like eight and 16 or 18, the coach becomes the primary figure. More important than the parents.

James Loy:

The profound impact that coaches can have on the growth and development of young athletes. That’s next time on the reframe podcast.