If you have young kids that are in sports I highly recommend you find and watch the full segment from the recent HBO Real Sports. The episode details how it is illegal in Norway for youth sports to maintain rankings for young athletes until they are 13-years-of-age. Addtionally, when kids are young, like 6-10, most organizations don’t keep score too. Now, I am the last person in the world that things kids should not be subject to competition. In fact I think they should be subject to more. But I don’t think adults should hijack that competition to fulfill their lack of sporting success as a kid or make sports a miserable experience because they hope their child grows up to be the next Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky.
I have a 6-year-old and he plays sports. For the most part he gets to choose what he wants to do. He’s picked baseball, soccer and basketball. He’s also voiced an interest to do what daddy does and run and/or do obstacle course races. If he can’t decide what he wants, or decides to do nothing, my wife and I will pick for him. I think playing sports as a youth is one of the most important things kids can do for social development, and thus, he will be forced to do some kind of sport from time to time. I can almost always tell by how an adult handles a team project at work, or in life generally, if they played sports as a kid. Kids that don’t play sports just have a different understand of what working together to achieve a collective result is really about.
Going back to the show, in Norway they hope that by not focusing on results, kids will equate sports with play and enjoyment. As a result they will continue their involvement in sports later into life, many times into adulthood. Norway is always one of the most outdoor and sports-oriented countries in the world. This is done because people continue being active in sports deep into adulthood.
Norway also does something kind of interesting. Only after the age of 12 do they allow organizations to start looking at, and developing, kids to become elite or professional athletes. First, they don’t believe that real talent surfaces until at least 12. They give examples of all the cases where some 10-year-old gets identified as gifted, only to fall apart after puberty or fall apart because of burn-out. In Norway, once a child is older, adults can better identify who has real talent. More importantly, they begin to see who has the mental make-up to handle the stresses of elite sports. And it is argued that a bigger percentage of those moving on handle the stress because they are there for the right reasons, mainly they want to be there. Sometimes this is a novel notion in American youth sports.
One of the most eye-opening aspects of being a dad of a 6-year-old is the absolute level of bat-shit crazy in some parents regarding sports. There are two areas that I get into repeated arguments with other parents about: specialization and the relatively new phenomena of “club/travel teams”.
First, NO, I’m not having my 6-six-year-old begin to focus on one sport to the detriment of participating in others. He’s not sure what he likes yet. He and I are not sure what he is even good at. Even if he was great at something and really love it, I’m still making him play any and everything. In my experience with people I grew up with, if they focused on one sport early, and were really good at it, they SUCKED at everything else. I know people that got college basketball, soccer and baseball scholarships that literally would drown if put into a pool. Opposite, I knew several elite college swimmers that I was embarrassed for when they tried throwing a football in public. And almost to a person, these one sport athletic wonders got so burnt out playing that one sport, the day they were no longer forced to play it was the last day they played any sport . . . or were active in any way.
I played everything growing up on a competitive level: basketball, football, baseball, hockey, volleyball, swimming, track, climbing, obstacle course/Spartan racing, cycling, karate/judo/MMA, gymnastics, triathlon, water skiing and snow skiing. My mom never pushed me into any of them. She let me pick. The only deal was she would sign me up for whatever I wanted to do and pay for it. I just needed to finish whatever I started, no matter how much I hated it. It was a good deal with life-long lessons. Today, at age 44, I still chose to participate in competitive sports from triathlon to hockey. And since I did get exposed to a lot of different sports, you can put me in almost any game, even if I never did it before, and not embarrass myself. I can draw from lessons learned in a host of other sports and figure it out.
Then there is this whole phenomena of travel/club sports and how kids are perceived as some form of second-class sports citizens if they don’t play on one. I grew up playing sports for my small Catholic grade school. Then for my high school. Then for my college. Then for myself. If your local organization does not provide a sport, look to travel teams, but don’t put your kids on them in order to address your own issues. I can’t tell you how many parents I know love to brag about how their kid plays on this elite team or that one, only to watch my son that plays the sport in the backyard with dad from time to time, school the “elite travel team kid” at their sport. Why, because my kid is having fun and yours is effectively “at work”. Again, how do you even know your kids is that good at soccer or basketball when the main goal with kids that age is to get them to run in the right direction and not bunch up around the ball.
My final rant, for parents of young kids, say under 12, don’t be so eager to put your kids in individual sports like golf, running, swimming, gymnastics. Youth sports, to me, are all about socializing kids. Teaching them how to work with others for a common goal. How to sacrifice, sometimes personal accolades, so the team wins. I was lineman and tight end in football. I know. When you put your kids in individual sports at a young age they learn the object of “sports” is to gain personal recognition. Not a great lesson to teach a 6-year-old. Don’t worry, Facebook and Instagram will teach them all about getting personal recognition for the rest of their lives.
Watch the episode. It’s really good. When you are done, really think about what they are doing in Norway. You might find yourself not screaming at your just-beyond-a-toddler-aged child for not running to the ball hard enough next time.