Can We Improve Youth Sports? Part 1 – Anxiety And Depression

This is the first post in a three (maybe four) part series about the current state of youth sports.  This first post will discuss the importance of youth sports in combating the trend of anxiety and depression in today’s kids.  The second post will give a brief historical background of the history and growth of youth sports in the US, and the third post will be some of my own ramblings about what youth sports could potentially look like.  I’ve also had enough people talk to me/ask me questions about the relationship between high school-college-professional sports that I may include a fourth post in this series.  I’m not 100% certain I want to venture down that path yet, but I’m leaning towards writing it.


It’s no secret that society is facing a daunting hurdle in the raising of our kids.  The quickly rising rates of depression and anxiety are well documented.  As I’m writing this, a Google search of the term “anxiety in children” returned 128,000 results from the last 24 hours.  Many of those results are commentaries linked back to this New York Times article from October.  If you have a few free minutes, it’s an excellent case study read, but for the purposes of my blog today, I’m going to refer you to this article from Psychology Today instead.

The article’s author, Amy Morin, has also written a resource book for parents (which, full disclosure, I have not read).  In her article, Amy lists 10 ways that today’s society/culture is contributing to higher rates of anxiety and depression in today’s youth.  Rather than offering a long commentary on each, I’m only going to briefly relate each of her observations to youth sports.  If we’re going to use sports as a tool to benefit our kids, we have to change how we introduce sports to kids.  The highly structured culture of today’s youth sports is feeding into all 10 of these concerns.

1 – Overly scheduled youth sports leagues contribute to this in two different ways.  First, highly structured practices, games, and tournaments have led to less free-play among kids, which has lead to more downtime, which has lead to more screen time.  (Think like this: rather than spending 6 hours on a Saturday at the park with friends like we used to as kids, we shuttle our kids to a single game that lasts an hour or two, and that might be their entire length of play for the day.)  Secondly, the increased car time traveling to weekend tournaments has further given kids more screen time.  On the surface, eliminating (or reducing, at least) travel in youth sports could drastically increase the amount of free play while reducing the amount of screen time.

2- Ironically, youth sports is one place where kids should feel happy most of the time.  Playing games is supposed to be fun.  However, the emotions that a kid feels while playing should be of the kid’s own making, not influenced by parents.  If a kid misses a free throw, drops a pass, shoots wide of an open net, etc., we can’t minimize the small failure by providing the kid with excuses, reasons, or the dreaded “It’s ok.”  Instead, provide encouragement to continue playing and continue improving for the next attempt.

3 – One of the things I tell my coaches – especially middle school coaches – is to praise kids for what they are doing, not for who they are.  Meaning, if they have a 6 foot tall 7th grader who grabs 20 rebounds a game, don’t praise the kid for getting 20 rebounds.  The kid may interpret that as praise for being tall, which he or she has no control over.  Instead, praise the kid for crashing the boards, or boxing out, or reading shots well off the glass because those praises are for efforts the kid is making.  And if the kid is getting rebounds simply by being taller than everybody else, then don’t praise the kid for rebounding; find some other aspect to praise while providing criticism and feedback to improve the kid’s rebounding ability.

4 – I fully believe this is a large part of why youth sports are they way they are.  I really don’t think that a majority of parents think it’s ok to spend as much time and money as they spend on youth sports, but I think that a majority of parents are worried about appearing to be “not as good at parenting” as their peers.  More on that in #8 below.

5 – When parents release their kids to the experience of sports, kids are on their own to deal with all of the emotions that come along with playing: happiness, excitement, frustration, anger, sadness, nervousness, etc. etc. etc.  Youth sports should be a safe place for kids to experiment with emotional control and response.  Every time a parent interferes with his/her kid’s experience, that parent has taken away an opportunity for the kid to grow.

6 – I use some detailed communication guidelines in our department because I believe that high school kids should be able to begin having tough conversations with their coaches.  Beyond that, it shouldn’t matter to parents whether your child is on the A or B team, or varsity or JV, or starting or not.  This is the kid’s experience, not the parent’s, and whether or not a parent agrees with how a coach is managing personnel, a kid’s learning how to deal with that disappointment is part of growing up.  (Check out this well-written letter by a basketball coach in Fargo.)  OF COURSE it’s tough to see your kid when he/she is sad, but wouldn’t you rather see your kid learn coping skills now than lacking those skills as an adult?

7 – Here’s the real difficulty in sports parenting.  Where is the balance between too much shoving and not enough pushing?  Every kid is different, so it’s important that parents not try to treat their kids the same way as some other parent…especially since that parent may be struggling to find the same balance.  I believe the best aiming point is to encourage kids to try things, help motivate them to want to improve, but let them have their own experience.

8 – I’m curious to hear other parents’ feedback on this one; make a comment on this post or send me an email.  Anecdotally, I think I see quite a bit of guilt in sports parenting – in the manner of Keeping Up With the Joneses mentality – parents who are spending time and money on various things because they either lack the ability to or simply don’t want to tell their kids “no.”  It’s ok to tell your kid “no” when you’re the parent!

9 – I mentioned this earlier, but I really do believe that highly structured activities have been the main culprit behind the lack of free play time for our kids.  Think about going to a weekend tournament: you’ll drive X hours on Friday to get to the venue, play two games (maybe 3ish hours total?) on Saturday, and one to two games on Sunday, then drive X hours to get back home.  Instead, your kids could have played with friends from after school on Friday until sundown, all day Saturday, and a huge chunk of Sunday.  Likewise, even when kids only have a single scheduled game on a Saturday, far too many kids on a much too often basis will limit themselves to being active only during that scheduled game time.  Do whatever you need to to get kids out playing unstructured games with their friends!  More on this in Part 3 of this series in a couple weeks.

10 – Yes, this.  If your entire winter has been completely scheduled based on your kids’ activities, and if your family vacations are only occurring as a result of traveling to your kids’ activities, and if the entire weekend at a tournament is dictated by what your kid and his/her teammates want to do, then you’re allowing your kid to run your family.  If your kid is participating on a travel team, you’re going to find yourself on the road for games at some point.  But outside of the actual game times, parents need to dictate what happens and when it happens.  Related to #8 – you don’t need to make those decisions out of guilt, and related to #2 – it’s ok if your kiddo isn’t happy with your decision.

Part Two is coming (hopefully) next week.  I have some research as to how we arrived at our current state of highly structured and over-scheduled youth sports.  We came by it honestly, so it’s going to take some effort to make any small changes.

(**And in completely unrelated news, I’m working on getting two podcasts off the ground!  The first is a parallel to this blog, so it will be me – hopefully with guests from time to time – talking about content similar to what I write about.  I’m hoping there will be useful info for ADs, coaches,  and more importantly, parents.  The second podcast is a joint venture with some AD colleagues of mine from Colorado and Ohio.  That podcast will be more directed as a resource/vent session for our fellow ADs.  Stay tuned for more information!)

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