Sports have been a staple of childhoods across North America for centuries. The organized and structured games that children play are effective activity for solving problems and improving quality of life for individuals and society alike (Coakley, 2011). This is based off the acceptance that sport is a perfect avenue for leaders to instill the values, social norms and desired ideologies of their culture. However, academics have debated the timing of the intervention of organized sports in childhood, particularly those that are based on competition, with many critics concluding that structured play is having a damaging effect on youth (Cote, Lidor, & Hackfort, 2009) (Gould, 2010).
The rise of organized and competitive youth sport has been well documented, especially in the United States. Various books and media have explored the topic, with a large consensus being that the current delivery practices are having a negative impact on participants. One major theme found in the literature surrounding organized competitive youth sport is the prevalence of early specialization. The age that parents and youth are entering the field of organized and competitive play is plummeting, as more pressure is being applied to “get ahead” in the race of sport excellence. This pressure is developing at two particular levels – amongst parents and sport providers.
When understanding the trend of early specialization, it is important to understand the sport system in which the context is set in. For the United States, Tom Farrey’s book, Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children, provides a short and simple explanation of the American youth sport system.
According to Farrey, the American’s poor showing at the 1988 Olympics led the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) to shift its focus on funding athletes (Farrey, 2008). The organization, which is responsible for coordinating and leading elite level sport in the country, began to strategically invest in competitors who were identified as having the potential to win medals, rather than the previous method of investing in all athletes who could meet an international standard for Olympic qualification (Farrey, 2008).
The USOC’s shift in policy caused a ripple that altered the entire sport system in the United States. Public money for grassroots development, the foundation of any strong sport system, was further reallocated for elite performers. This lead to many public sport associations, particularly school-based physical education programs, to cease operations, which lead non-public enterprises to quickly take over the amateur sports industry (Farrey, 2008). These organizations, such as Little League Baseball, Pop Warner Football, and YMCA, instituted pay-to-play models of business, which resulted in the exclusion of participants from low-income households (Friedman, 2013).
Following this shift in policy, youth sport in America has grown into a multi-million-dollar industry. These non-public organizations continue to push for a greater share of the industry, which has caused a fierce competition for participants. In a bid to increase their revenues, the directors of these organizations set their sights on hooking participants, and their cash flush parents, in earlier.
Non-public organizations have played on a theme that has roots in youth sport since it’s inception in the United States. Since the late 1800’s, scholars argued that sport, specifically those competitive in nature, was a device for moral development and social norms (Coakley, 2011) (Chandler & Goldberg, 1990). This was the foundation of school based sport, which was used to prepare students both physically and mentally for the industrial society that was emerging at the time (Friedman, 2013). This trend in sport continued until the 1960’s when a trend called the self-esteem movement began.
The movement marked a shift away from competition in public programing, as it was believed to be detrimental to youth development. Instead, a focus was placed on building confidence and pride in one’s own talent, while re-framing from comparing a child’s abilities to others (Friedman, 2013). This compelled parents, who possessed the financial resources, to pay-to-play providers such as Little League Baseball and Pop Warner Football to provide their kids with the foundation of values to succeed (Friedman, 2013). It was this belief that the pay-to-play organizations expanded upon and monetized.
Americans, like the vast majority of people, are willing to do anything for their children. Parents want to provide their children with a better life, and for them to enjoy everything they did in their youth. This means sports, and parents will do everything in their power to provide their child with the best chance at athletics. Sports in the United States favour early starters, and pay-to-play organizations are compelling parents into entering their kids in organized sports at younger ages.
By entering their toddler into the sport system, parents are led to believe that they are giving their kid a head start over their peers. This investment early in life will pay off for their children later in various forms. By gaining sport skills and competition experience early, some believe they are setting their kids up for success in adolescences sport when college scouts begin to appear (Farrey, 2008). In fact, some American families are spending upwards of $100,000 per-child on youth sports, more than a college education, which includes private coaching lessons, strength and conditioning sessions, physiotherapy, and travel in their pursuit of lucrative college scholarships (Farrey, 2008). Unfortunately, athletic scholarships rarely materialize, and kids who enter sport to soon have been linked to a number of physical, psychological, and social issues (Cote, Lidor, & Hackfort, 2009) (Gould, 2010).
While this discussion is grounded in an American context, similar examples can be found in the Canadian Sport System as well. One does not need to look farther than their local hockey rink, or soccer field to see kids under 12 years of age contending for a spot on a pay-to-play competitive travel team. However, is competition amongst youth entirely bad?
In Canada, there have been a number of policies developed around the idea of lifelong sport and recreation participation. The most common framework is the Canadian Sport for Life Long-term Athlete Development Model (LTAD). This outline, which has been adapted in numerous countries, defines standards for sport participation at all stages of an individual’s life-cycle. The LTAD, which is grounded in academic research, stresses the need for activity at a young age (Balyi, Way, & Higgs, 2013). However, it is clear that entering into a specific sport training to early is detrimental to the health development of any individual.
As previously mentioned, early specialization has been linked to a number of physical, psychological, and social issues, such as overuse injuries and burn-out. For this reason, the LTAD has made it clear that youth need to sample a number of different sporting activities to build a number of different skills before settling on a specific sport (Balyi, Way, & Higgs, 2013). And while each National Sport Organization in Canada has adapted the LTAD to meet their sport’s unique needs, it is common practice among the frameworks that youth need to be gradually introduced to competitive environments, rather than being dropped into them.
Despite the strives that many professionals have made, the utopian view of the LTAD is still far from being realized in our country. While the LTAD provides sport providers with a direction towards a “sport-for-all” approach, the Canadian Sport System is not far off from our American counterparts in some respects. Like the United States, youth sport in Canada is a lucrative market, and sport organizations, both public and private, are competing for their share of it. Securing participants early in will ensure a cash stream that could be acquired by another association if they are not quick. And similar to the climate of American youth sport, Canadians are trying to expose their children to competition with the hope of getting ahead and of their peers, and not falling behind them in the race for experience.
It is important to understand the factors that have lead to the early specialization among youth, and realize the risks associated with the phenomenon. While frameworks have been developed to curve the trend, it is clear that organizations who have a financial incentive to ensure the growth of participation will likely refuse to change their practice of early recruitment. It is therefore up to those with the decision making power to choose the path of sport participation. Those individuals include policy markers within government, but also parents who are providing the capital to the competitive pay-to-play programs that are turning children into athletes far too soon. Children need to be given the time to play and develop– there will be plenty of time for playbooks.
Balyi, I., Way, R., & Higgs, C. (2013). Long-term Athlete Development. Windsor, Ontario, Canada: Human Kinetics.
Chandler, T. J., & Goldberg, A. D. (1990). Building character through sports: Myth or possibility. Counseling & Values, 34(3), 169. Retrieved October 25, 2016
Coakley, J. (2011). Youth Sports: What Counts as “Positive Development?”. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 35(5), 306-324. Retrieved October 25, 2016
Cote, J., Lidor, R., & Hackfort, D. (2009). ISSP position stand: To sample or to specialize? Seven postulates about youth sport activities that lead to continued participation and elite performance. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 7(1), 7-17. Retrieved October 25, 2016
Farrey, T. (2008). Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children. New York: ESPN Books.
Friedman, H. L. (2013, September 20). When Did Competitive Sports Take Over American Childhood? The Atlantic.
Gould, D. (2010). Early Sport Specialization. Journal of Physical, 81(8), 33-37. Retrieved October 25, 2016