Too Many Organized Sports?

Nearly two years ago, my newsletter “Why Teens Quit Sports” aimed to help parents to better understand and speak with kids who suddenly decide to give up their previous passions, sometimes after years of commitment, hard work, and family resources. Now I’m thinking it may not be in teens and tweens’ best interest to be quite as involved in organized sports as many are—or as parents often would like them to be.

Recently, the author Daniel H. Pink, best known for his books about business, work, and motivation, said in an interview that parents should be banned from attending their kids’ sports practices and games. He argued that even “nice, good” parents (AKA not the “nuts” or “hyper-competitive fathers,” as he put it) sitting on the sidelines distract kids from focusing on the game and their teammates. Also, by participating in their kids’ sports, parents prevent children from having to figure out for themselves how to manage failures. There is great truth in this. Pink also alludes to research that suggests organized sports inhibit kids’ creativity, but pickup games enhance it.

That’s the real crux of this issue, I believe. It’s not just that parents shouldn’t intrude upon kids’ athletic activities—an idea that has much merit—but more that many teens and tweens would benefit from spending less time in organized sports. Increasingly, I’m realizing that research is suggesting teens and tweens gain more from the freedom to go outside and form their own pickup games, much like kids did a generation or two ago. This is not to say team participation can’t be a good thing. In theory, kids can develop new skills, make friends, learn about cooperation, make commitments, and manage competitive feelings. But the reality is, as organized sports have changed these potential benefits are far more elusive.

Intense Demands

These days, teens and tweens paint a far different picture of school and community teams than in the past. Too often, it’s a stressful experience. Many kids endure intense, anxiety-provoking tryouts, more time-consuming and grueling practices, and games or meets that require late nights and whole weekends of travel away from home. A high school sophomore’s recent description of her JV volleyball team sounded more like a Division III college program.

It’s also harder to make friends because, as teens tell it, athletes hoping to be recruited for college vilify those who are less talented, don’t seem “serious,” or make mistakes. Along with peer intimidation, there is the pressure of parents who are overly invested in the outcome of games (or how well their own kids perform). No wonder more teens and tweens these days don’t want any part of it. A 16-year-old boy in my practice just told me he works out every day in the gym to avoid the stress of being on a team. Sports are no longer the terrific physical outlets they once were for teens needing to blow off steam and reduce tension; now, they usually exacerbate pressures.

Less Down Time

Another concern is that kids today are already so busy that commitments to organized sports further limit—if not completely eliminate—any chance of having down time. Many teens say they have none—except when they’re procrastinating by checking out social media sites. Ironically, that’s the very reason why some parents encourage sports: fear that unstructured time invites teens and tweens to get into mischief or real trouble. But research suggests there is great value in self-directed activity, which can only happen when kids aren’t locked into jam-packed schedules.

In addition to the myriad benefits of boredom, which I spoke about in last month’s newsletter “Let Them Be Bored.” some clinicians believe self-directed activity may help counteract the meteoric rise in emotional problems among young people during the past 50 years. In his seminal article, “The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents,” Peter Gray proposes that kids and teens feel more in control and less helpless when they reap the internal rewards that come from pursuing activities they really want to do. In contrast, those who aim for external rewards of grades, team wins, and trophies, which are based on factors beyond their control (e.g., subjective judgments of parents, teachers, and coaches), are apt to become anxious and depressed. By helping kids develop authentic interests and competence over time, self-directed activities may build more confidence than hitting a home run or becoming soccer champions.

The Case for Pickup Games

Here are some reasons why the chance to engage in self-directed activities such as casual pickup games may in fact better promote teens and tweens’ healthy development than structured sports:

1. Independent decision-making and problem solving lead to self-confidence

Just as free play helps young children to make decisions, solve problems, follow rules, and exert self-control, teens who play casual soccer games or shoot hoops at the park are in charge of their own sports rather than relegating that control to adults. Without the scaffolding of parents and coaches, they have to rely on themselves to determine how games will be played. Because they’re motivated to keep having fun, they have to manage conflict and whatever impediments arise, such as someone challenging a call or objecting to a rule; players wanting to leave the game; or kids getting injured. When adults aren’t around, kids have to learn to successfully negotiate and compromise, skills that promote independence, fair play, and self-confidence.

2. Teens and tweens learn to control their emotions and behavior

Because they’re playing games just because they’re enjoying themselves, psychologists argue that kids who typically chafe against rules of authority figures are more motivated to conform to social boundaries, both explicit and unspoken. Unless they rein in their impulses, withstand discomfort or disappointment without too much complaining, and manage their anger and aggression, games will come to an abrupt halt. In doing so, teens hone crucial self-regulatory skills that will help them immeasurably in academic pursuits, relationships, and all sorts of emotionally challenging situations.

3. Tweens and teens figure out their ideal degree of risk-taking

An essential part of kids’ development is learning to titrate the amount of risk taking in their play. As Peter Gray describes, if there’s too little risk-generated excitement, they’re bored. If there’s too much risk, teens are too terrified to have fun. When they’re allowed to experiment with physically vigorous and challenging activities—think skateboarding tricks, skiing black diamond trails, and rough-and tumble horseplay—they learn just how much risk-taking they need. Kids also become skilled in coping with fear. As my colleagues and I often see in our practices, this is a necessary experience; those who have been sheltered are overly timid and insecure when challenged. They’ve never learned how to face up to their fears and harness them to overcome hurdles. As a result, they also don’t experience the thrill of ultimately being successful.

4. Through common interests, kids organically develop friendships

Due to parents’ fears of an unsafe world, overscheduling, and technology, many teens and tweens today are isolated from face to face activities that promote social skills and friendships with peers. Playing group video games on computers in their bedrooms is not nearly as effective as spontaneous rounds of kickball or pickup games of soccer or making up new sports entirely with whatever equipment is available. When teens and tweens have fun together, especially when they’re not competing for their coaches’ approval, coveted spots on the starting lineup, or playing time, they more naturally seek out each other’s company again.

5. Peer-led games reduce unhealthy narcissism

Researchers such as psychologist Jean Twenge have identified another factor contributing to the frightening increase in psychopathology among this generation of young people—namely, narcissism. In the mental health world, narcissism is understood not as healthy self-esteem, but rather as an overly inflated view of one’s self that interferes with forming healthy relationships. When narcissistic individuals don’t get the recognition or success they think they deserve, they attribute their problems to factors beyond their control and become anxious and depressed. It’s easy to see why doting parents try to build self-esteem by telling kids how amazing they are, but too much adulation—and not enough realistic self-appraisal—actually causes enormous problems later on.

Pickup games are a great antidote to narcissism. On the field, peers don’t tolerate airs of superiority or expectations for special treatment. There are no father-coaches who play favorites or control playing time. If teens and tweens don’t want to be excluded from neighborhood games, they have to see themselves as equals and act like they’re subjected to the same rules as everyone else. Self-directed activities thereby provide teens and tweens with corrective experiences and a sort of reality check against the unhealthy narcissism that can lead to later difficulties with relationships as well as general mental health problems.

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Many parents have such fond memories of playing organized sports when they were in school that they’re eager for their teens and tweens to have those same experiences. Others want to give their kids advantages on the court that they didn’t have. These days, it’s hard not to get caught up in the frenzy to build college resumes with participation in recognizable team sports, championships, captainships, and so forth. Listing “pickup basketball games” as an athletic activity on the common app…harder to imagine.

On the other hand, more and more college students are flaming out these days because they don’t have the basic self-regulatory skills needed to manage their academic, social, and emotional lives away from home. It seems wise to make sure teens and tweens balance involvement in organized sports with enough down time that they experience the real developmental benefits of self-directed games and unstructured activities.

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