We tend to romanticize youth sports as the last bastion of pure, unfiltered joy in competition – before the stakes get raised at the professional, college or even high school level.
But the truth is that sports at the younger levels – yes, even as far down as 10U hockey – have become increasingly tilted to mirror their professional counterparts. From an emphasis on winning to increased demands on both time and money, the similarities are striking.
The so-called professionalization of youth sports can have a profound impact on young athletes – often with negative consequences, says sociologist Jay Coakley, Ph.D., who is the Executive Director of the Center for Critical Sport Studies at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
How we identify those components to better understand them is critical to the well-being of kids.
Coakley identifies what he terms the “performance principle” in outlining one way in which the lives of young athletes are trending toward those of athletes much older.
Coakley notes that programs stressing tactical or competitive elements of hockey are likely not doing kids any favors in their development.
“You’re focused on hockey tactics and techniques and in the process you exclude all of the aspects of hockey that young people find as fun,” Coakley said. “That’s one part of the professionalization where you use that principle as the guide for the things you do.”
It’s not that seeking improvement is bad, but the tactics are more important than the result.
“Kids are interested in getting better, but for the 10Us especially what you’re trying to do is make the process of getting better part of a general process of developing a joy in participating not just in hockey but movement generally,” Coakley said.
That concept is part of what Coakley describes as “physical literacy.” When kids are so focused on improvement and replicating tasks taught to them, they lose elements of physical evolution that will benefit them in the future.
“You take out the component of joy and learning to value being involved in physical activity because of intrinsic motivation reasons,” Coakley said. “There’s too much emphasis on the external consequences of getting better than the internal consequences of enjoying the sport and getting better at the same time. This is an issue that’s facing everybody dealing with kids under 10. How can we do what we want to do in terms of improving their skills while providing them a basis for general physical literacy and fun?”
The coaches that figure this out – largely with help from associations and from organizations like USA Hockey and its American Development Model – are the ones who will set up kids of varying skill levels for future success.
“This is an incremental process and I think USA Hockey is ahead of most other sports because they do have the ADM and pushed it and it has been accepted widely,” he said.
The other aspect of the professionalization of youth sports, Coakley says, has a monetary component. There’s more coaches, more teams and more enticing opportunities to convince families to play, train – and pay – year-round.
“Youth sports now is part of a structure that requires revenues to exist,” Coakley said. “We have this professionalization in terms of hiring coaches and hiring people to do special training and those kinds of things which jack up the price for others.”
That also leads to burnout.
For those who can afford all the ice time and extra training, the risk of burnout and overuse injuries becomes the problem.
“Initially when kids are under 10 and they get all of this attention from their parents, wear the uniforms, have all the accoutrements that make them look like the NHL, they’re really impressed with this,” Coakley said. “But after a while it becomes increasingly work-like. All of these things that are related to the performance principle seduce the kids initially but then they become tiring.”
The ones that are all-in on hockey would be well-advised to have that love and passion for the game nurtured with care and with breaks from the sport. Finding other physical activities to complement hockey is key.
“There’s some new data coming out on injury in sports where kids are wearing out their bodies,” Coakley said. “I don’t think their parents understand that. They don’t see the repetitive use that in 2-3 years can lead to injuries. Those are the kinds of things that coaches and federations really have to make clear to parents.”
Tag(s): ADM Features