Feature Article - January 2018
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Kids Just Wanna Have Fun

But the Best Youth Sports Programs Also Educate

By Rick Dandes

Children are being enrolled in organized youth sports programs at increasingly earlier ages, a growing trend that can have substantial benefits, if properly designed, organized and executed.

A good program should be all about having fun, experts say, but it can also help a very young child develop motor skills, and as they get older, teach them to interact with others.

There are leagues all the way down to age 3 for sports like soccer. That's not a bad thing when the programs are expertly and carefully run by people who understand that at such early ages it's all about physical development, not competitive games. Still, parents and guardians would do well to watch out for programs run by well-meaning but untrained coaches, said Dr. Fran Cleland, president, SHAPE ( Society of Health and Physical Educators), and a professor in the Department of Kinesiology at West Chester University in West Chester, Pa.

Cleland, whose expertise is primarily in sports programs run by school systems, is not enamored at all of the idea that very young kids should be enrolled in youth sports programs. "I mean, we have leagues all the way down to age 3 for soccer," she said. "I don't think kids should be in organized sports until probably up until third grade. Because between kindergarten and second grade children need to be acquiring fundamental movement skills, which is what they can acquire in a quality physical education programs. Oftentimes youth sports is not necessarily taught by a knowledgeable person. They don't know about childhood development.

"I just think children need to go outside and play," she added.

From birth to age 2, Cleland explained the implications for teaching: "Kids are going from the sensory motor into the pre-operational stage of cognitive development," she said. "What you are supposed to do is create a physically and emotionally safe environment. They need to play. They don't need to be taught anything. They can have a ball and throw it. They are just learning how to talk and walk. I think the play environment for 1- to 2-year-olds would be even more scaled down than for a preschool child. I saw a parent discipline a child for not playing with others and the child was only 2. It's not going to happen at 2, because they are egocentric at that age. And as far as explicit instruction, it's a waste."

Youth sports programs such as Start Smart, by the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS), or Play Ball, a Major League Baseball initiative, understand that.

"It's fine if developmentally, a program is doing fundamental movements drills and they are doing practice tasks. But as far as competition, young children, psychologically and socially, really don't work well in large groups," Cleland said.

Some kids are enrolled in groups at an early age because, these days, many parents have to work double time to support a family and don't have time to play with their kids after school. Or, an over-zealous parent might think their child has shown early talent in basketball or baseball and they want that talent developed, said Andy Parker, director of youth development, NAYS.

NAYS started in 1981 as a training program for volunteer youth sports coaches. "We recognized that there were all these adults, these parents, moms and dads, coaching our youth sports teams, and none of them have gone through any sort of training," Parker said. "We created a system, a program where we are able to give these coaches some tools, education and knowledge so they are in a better position to allow kids to have fun and ultimately succeed in sports."

NAYS was originally a coaches training program and then along the way they created an education program for parents. "It is an educational system for the professionals at parks and recs departments and YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs that are running these sports. The idea," Parker said, "was how to do everything better to best suit the needs of the kids and the community. Along the way we realized that moms and dads wanted their 3- to 5-year-olds to participate in youth sports."

Some 70 percent of kids in youth sports programs drop out by age 13, a NAYS study revealed. Another revealing fact, Parker said, was that roughly 50 percent of the kids in the 6-to-8-year-old age range that were participating in youth sports really didn't have any skills that would apply to that youth sport. "If you had a handful of 6- to 8-year-olds that were playing baseball in Little League, roughly half of them literally didn't know how to throw a baseball, and do the things that are needed for success."

Start Smart is designed for 3-to-5-year-olds, and follows some of the guidelines that educators like Fran Cleland suggest. "We put together Start Smart to try and help these communities that were in flux as to what to do with these younger children, where their parents were beating down their doors saying 'we want to put these kids in your program,'" Parker said. "Some of those parents, impatient, went ahead and created kind of a competitive environment, which is inappropriate for that age group if they don't have the skills they need.

Start Smart is geared toward motor skill development. There is no game play, there is no competition, there are no teams. For example, in Start Smart baseball all the talk is about throwing, catching, hitting, and then running in agility drills. The program is set up starting with the simplest task and then builds upon that week after week to develop the child's skills, so that when they turn 4 to 6 years old, and mom and dad want to put them into something more advanced, they at least have some knowledge, some skill base that they can work off of, when they move into this next level of programming," Parker said.

"We don't want parents on day one showing up with their 4-year-old with the idea that OK, this is the first step toward my child's professional sports contract," he said. "We are trying to eliminate that parental mentality and get the child to develop some skills, let them socialize, make friends, create a nice environment for everyone to grow and succeed together."