Both the pediatric sport science literature and the popular press have been emphasizing for quite some time the need to modify sport programs for young children based upon the developmental needs of participants rather than the perceived demands of a particular sport.Yet, despite these pleas, little change can be observed in most community-based youth sport programs.Some pediatric sport professionals argue that this unwillingness to change results in unnecessary physical injuries, missed opportunities to contribute to self-esteem for all participants, and early drop out from sport.Early drop out is particularly unfortunate because participation on a sport team during the adolescent years can provide an important peer group affiliation and social-immunization against gang membership on one hand and social isolation on the other.Health benefits of participation also peak at this time!
This lack of change should come as no surprise for a variety of reasons.First, these programs rarely have the benefit of direct input from the research community, from professional youth sport practitioners or from academically prepared physical educators.Second, there is a conspicuous lack of alternative program models to stimulate serious rethinking within community-based organizations.Third, there exists within most community-based programs a hard-core group of traditionalists who have the perceived or real power to resist change.And, fourth, the parents who place their children in youth sport programs usually do not have an adequate knowledge base with which to evaluate existing programs or to envision alternative ones.
The U.S. youth sport culture seems to have a strong bias toward serving the physically gifted participant.Thus, a sport environment is created to maximally challenge these athletes and to allow the slower developing child to feel inferior and to drop out.Since so few players ever make it to the professional ranks, it seems to be a terrible price to pay for the development of these few elite performers.And, fewer and fewer of these elite performers are providing the types of role models that we want our children to emulate.
Proponents for the introduction of formalized, competitive leagues, even for the very young, argue that children are naturally competitive and, therefore, are best served by a structured, competitive environment.This conclusion needs to be seriously re-examined, especially in light of the recommendations of the Council on the Physical Education of Children, the American Medical Association and similar professional groups.These groups recommend that it is more important to create environments where learning cooperation, good sporting behavior, and other pro-social skills are facilitated.It is interesting to note that every youth sport program claims to promote character development, pro-social skills, and good sporting behavior.The serious observer knows all too well that the opposite is too often the case.The lack of a fair play orientation within community-based youth sports, and particularly scholastic, collegiate and professional sports is particularly troublesome to those who want sport to be a character enhancing experience!
Sport is too valuable a tool to be wasted.Nearly every child wants to join a sport team.What other activity can make this claim?The sport community will continue to lose the battle to maintain this interest among our youth unless a serious, focused and sustainable effort is made to redesign the sport opportunities we offer to them.The following list of policy recommendations and action steps (in parentheses) represent a series of modifications that can make a real difference in the sporting lives of pre-adolescent children.
Summary of Recommendations
1.Put PLAY back into the PLAYing of sport games: this makes the activity much more enjoyable for children and, therefore, more likely to be continued. Train coaches of young children to be play leaders and games teachers, not drill sergeants.
2.Focus on the developmental needs of the whole child, not just the physical skills needed to be successful in sport play; learning in the physical or any other domain can not be compartmentalized as all learning is interrelated. Train coaches of young children to minimize the use of direct, command styles and to maximize the use of the indirect teaching styles of exploration, guided discovery, problem-solving and cooperative or reciprocal learning as these help children to internalize and integrate their learning.
3.Start children in movement exploration programs with games that promote the development of fundamental movement patterns prior to the introduction of sport-specific skills; this lays the foundation for all sport skills. Focus on locomotor, non-locomotor and object control skills with young children.
4.Introduce sport games to children in their most basic form (e.g., small-sided games with few rules) so that the GAME itself, not the coach, really can be the teacher; “The Teaching Games for Understanding approach"(TGfU) where children learn tactical awareness through play prior to skill instruction helps children acquire an appreciation for the need for skill development without external rewards or other incentives or threats. Provide coaches with a wide assortment of developmentally appropriate and properly sequenced games that isolate targeted tactics and skills for the "games for understanding approach" to work best.
5.Postpone the introduction of formal, competitive league structures; children are more likely to have the maturity to benefit from formal league play beginning at the ages of ten to twelve. Substitute more informal, sandlot-type game environments where the children share and benefit from more decision-making opportunities.
6.Eliminate the unnecessary, and often counterproductive, pressures created when playing against teams of strangers; this allows the coach to focus on where the children are, not where they "ought to be" if they are to be competitive. Give each coach one field and enough players to form two small teams, the composition of which can change each time the children play.This also creates the atmosphere of playing with playmates, not against adversaries - a much more psychologically healthful orientation for pre-adolescents.
7.Create opportunities for children to play games on most occasions with age peers that have similar size, skill, and aggressiveness; this creates for each child more opportunities for "peak performance" or "flow” as described by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. Provide several small fields/playing surfaces at each location so that players can be mixed and matched to optimize reciprocal learning situations and joyful play.
8.Make participation as convenient as possible for the entire family; this can reduce dropout for players and parents alike. Create large campuses of small-sided fields so that the entire family can play at the same location and time, thus, minimizing transportation issues.
9.Place a high priority on teaching and reinforcing good sporting behavior; the sport environment offers numerous opportunities and "teachable moments" to teach fairness and pro-social behavior in a manner that children can relate to in concrete rather than abstract forms. Provide written materials and training to coaches and parents on how to teach, model and reinforce good sporting behavior.This is simply character education in a sport context and is easily transferable to daily life when indirect teaching styles are used.
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