Rethinking Youth Sports

By Staff

Coaching Management, 14.8, September 2006,

Many high school track and field coaches look at the youth programs available for sports like basketball, baseball, and football, and wish they had a similar program for track. Rick Collins, on the other hand, looks at highly formalized and successful youth programs not with envy, but concern.

Head Coach of girls’ varsity track and field at Simsbury (Conn.) High School, Collins is also a fourth-grade teacher, and he has begun a crusade to change the culture of youth sports throughout his state and perhaps the nation. His main complaint is that youth sports, no matter how well intended, have come to focus on the early-blooming, talented elite. Collins believes this hurts not only those who get left behind, but also the youngsters who excel.

Collins contends that kids who don’t make travel or other elite teams in the preteen years—before many are physically and psychologically able to shine—mostly give up on sports. They miss out on the benefits of athletic competition and don’t bother trying out when they get to high school, just when their athletic ability may be coming into its own.

At the same time, many youngsters who do make elite squads burn out by the time they reach the age where high-level competition is more appropriate. It’s a system that ends up serving no one well, except perhaps those who run elite teams and camps.

“If an adult tells a seven-year-old, ‘Right now, you’re not good enough,’ it takes a special child with a tremendous amount of self-esteem and maturity to overcome that,” Collins says. “At the same time, I see a great amount of stress and a lack of enjoyment for kids who do compete at the elementary level. The whole point of youth sports is for kids to have a great time. But our kids are almost becoming miniature professional athletes, with all the pressures that accompany having to win and make travel teams.”

To advocate for change, Collins has begun speaking throughout Connecticut to anyone who will listen and has formed the Connecticut Youth Sports Initiative, targeted primarily at municipal youth boards. He asks the boards to de-emphasize or eliminate travel squads for children younger than 11 and institute leveled sports programs that emphasize learning skills along with teamwork, fair play, and fun. He also wants the programs to ensure that all participants see significant participation opportunities.

According to Collins, the approach could also help reduce many of the problems high school coaches encounter with parents, such as anger over playing time. “Those problems don’t just suddenly pop up when the kids get to high school,” he says. “They are bred at the youth sports level, and unless we address some of these issues there, anything we do at the high school level is just a Band-Aid.”

To set an example, Collins runs a youth track program that meets only an hour a week. Kids learn the basics of each event and compete on relay teams. The approach has helped him garner much greater turnout for his high school program, he believes, by simply introducing sports to young children without asking them to compete in a way that’s not appropriate for their age.

Collins believes it’s up to other high school coaches to initiate change in their own communities. “A high school coach who has courage and foresight can make a change,” he says. “If you want to take a stand, go to the youth board for your sport and demand that they keep developmental factors as major components of the youth program.”