Interview by Don Patterson
Here in the U.S., we’ve become a giant contradiction when it comes to sports. On one hand, we crave our games. More than 100 million of us will watch the Super Bowl in a couple of weeks. And we are forever motivated to discover and mold the next Tiger Woods or LeBron James or Tom Brady. The massive quantity of dollars spent on club and travel-ball teams speaks to that.
On the other hand, childhood obesity is an ongoing problem and overall participation in sports by kids is slipping. Inactive kids ages 6 to 12 rose to nearly 20 percent in 2012 from 16 percent in 2007, according to an SFIA/Physical Activity survey that was included in a recent Wall Street Journal article on youth sports.
If you’re intrigued by the often puzzling phenomenon of kids at play and where they fit in the American sports landscape, Tom Farrey’s book “Game On” is a must read. He gives an illuminating look at young athletes, how they’re coached, why they’re being pushed to higher levels of competition at younger ages and why so many kids are walking away from recreational play.
Farrey, an award-winning reporter for ESPN who lives with his family in Connecticut, has a wide perspective. Not only has he researched and written about the games we play for many years, he is also the father of three active kids, so he has viewed sports through the lens of an engaged parent who would like to create better sports opportunities for kids everywhere. To that end, he serves as the Executive Director of The Aspen Institute’s Project Play, an organization that aims to help those involved in youth sports better serve the interests of children, communities and public health and to create an environment that will allow kids of all ages to develop healthy lifetime habits.
The Art of Coaching talked recently with Farrey about the importance of quality coaching at the youth level and the challenges associated with keeping kids active even if they’re not bound for college scholarships or pro ball. Here’s Part 1 of that interview:
AOC: Let’s start off by touching on something you wrote about in “Game On” – kids starting organized sports at younger and younger ages. The book was published in 2008. Is that a continuing trend today?
T.F.: We don’t have any great data on that. We just have anecdotal observations, but I think everything is earlier than it was even five or six years ago. For instance, my daughter started playing lacrosse six years when it was first introduced here in my town [in Connecticut]. That was when she was in fifth grade, and now it starts in kindergarten. Field hockey didn’t start until high school until a couple of years ago. Now, it’s starting in first grade. And you get flyers about travel teams and premier teams. It’s all gotten more and more ramped up, more industrialized. There’s more of a business model built around identifying and developing the next generation of athlete/entertainers. Or, more often, [it's built around] the kids who can afford to have access to that pipeline – those who can afford the private club and the travel.
AOC: It seems as if a lot of youth coaches who might once have favored more free play have decided that kids who want to excel in a particular sport need to get an early start or they won’t have a chance. Is that just a reality of today’s sports climate?
T.F.: Well, they need to be physically active early, and in certain sports that requires a level of technical development – soccer, baseball, a few others – it certainly does benefit you to get access to coaches and repetitions and a strong development environment early on. Unfortunately, that often costs money and family time. So there’s still very much a role for free play, and I think we need to bring back more of it. But there’s a role for good coaching as well at an early age, and the kids who have access to the good coaches and more practice time are inevitably going to be ahead of the other kids. What makes it difficult is, if other kids have been at this for five or six years and now you decide to play a sport for the first time, you’ve got to be a really good athlete to jump in and add value or even make one of those teams. And you also have to have a coach who is willing to be remedial with you and explain concepts of the game that he or she was teaching three or four years ago to the other kids.
AOC: In your experience as a father and someone who has done extensive research on youth sports, do you think there’s a problem with unrealistic expectations of parents who may think that their kids have great potential to play college or pro based on success at a very young age?
T.F.: Yes, you have to manage expectations. They need to be working off the best information, which they’re not right now. They either don’t know the odds of how difficult it is to even get a college scholarship or they’re taking the attitude of, “Well, yeah, the odds are long, so therefore I need to take extreme measures at an early age with my kids.” Sometimes they’re motivated in the wrong way about those odds. What they don’t understand is that for those who make it to the Division 1 college level and certainly to the professional level, it takes not just hard work but a good piece of clay. These are genetically gifted specimens, and then coaches work with them well. They’re lucky enough to avoid injuries. They’re lucky enough not to have gotten burned out. They’re lucky enough that the sport [they play] is something that they’ve enjoyed over the long haul. So it takes a lot that is really out of the hands of parents. Parents cannot manufacture an elite athlete, except in very small sports. They need to be realistic about that. In this country, we tend to apply all of our ideas of achievement to (ideas such as) “the early bird gets the worm” or “hard work trumps all,” but [those notions] are only so valuable when you’re talking about physical and mental expression at the highest level. That’s where Malcolm Gladwell got it wrong – or at least he misinterpreted the information – with the 10,000 hours rule and the whole idea that it’s a magic number and you’re going to be a master if you hit 10,000 hours. At the end of the day, does hard work matter? Yes, of course. But it’s not as if you put in X number of hours and you start at an early age and therefore you will end up as an elite athlete. It just doesn’t work that way.
AOC: Parents either seem to go overboard — trying to create the next Tiger Woods by putting golf clubs in a kid’s hands at age 2 or 3 – or go the opposite direction by just taking an attitude of, “Dabble in anything and have fun.” Should parents be more at the midway point between those extremes by encouraging kids to work hard at a sport and take it as far as they can but not focus so much on it being a pathway to a college scholarship? And related to that, shouldn’t parents help kids pick something they’re likely to have an aptitude for? If the parents are short and don’t have fast-twitch fibers, choosing basketball may not be the best idea. But if the parents are musical, maybe 10,000 hours of piano will mean the kids get really good. Will they be concert pianists? Probably not. But it seems like it’s a good life lesson to get as good as you can at something. So again, isn’t a big part of the issue that the parents are misguided in terms of their expectations?
T.F.: They are misguided, but I don’t spend a whole lot of time blaming parents in my book or at Project Play. They’re mostly just responding to what they’re given, which is a lack of information about what true athletic development requires – meaning when do you specialize vs. [participating in] multi-sport play and what are the important elements early on? So they’re working off ignorance. But they’re also working off a set of incentives and disincentives that drive their behavior. The incentives are the lure of the athletic scholarship, which is really what has driven the creation of these travel teams and private club teams. The idea is that if you invest early, there will potentially be a payoff down the road for your kid. (Another incentive) is preferential college admissions. This is what’s driving a lot of upper income or upper middle-class income parents. They may not get financial aid, but their kid might get an advantage into a good school. And number two, the parents read the headlines about kids being obese, and they don’t want their kid to be that kid, so they’ll do anything to keep their kid active and involved and at the center of the system. They also see some of the other benefits. I see it with my son, who is captain of his soccer team and one of the top senior soccer players in the state, and he also plays varsity basketball. Being an athlete has non-financial benefits. There are real social benefits in how kids respond to you at school, how girls may respond to you if you’re a male athlete. So everybody is driving to get kids these benefits, financial or otherwise. Very early on in the writing of “Game On,” I shifted my thinking. I went in to the book thinking that a lot of the problems that we have are moral failures. I was blaming the parents to a certain degree, thinking, “Why can’t you control yourself on the sideline?” But then you look at it from an economic perspective. And this comes from a conversation I had with a guy named Andy Schwartz, who is an economist and one of the guys involved in a lot of the lawsuits against the NCAA; he helped shift my thinking about what drives human behavior. It’s structure. What is the structure that you’re presented with as a parent? What are the incentives and disincentives? We need to be careful about blaming the parents [because] once you look at the macro, you understand that parents getting ramped up about their kids in sports is not just happening in a community here and there. It’s a nationwide problem.
AOC: It seems as if there are basically three subsets of youth athletes. One is the large percentage of kids who should play and have fun and recreate and enjoy all the benefits that come from sports. Another is the really, really tiny elite group — the fraction of 1 percent – who are genetically gifted at a very high level. The third is maybe the upper 10 percent who are directly below the very elite. These would be good natural athletes who have the ability to go reasonably far – maybe varsity high school, maybe college – with good direction, knowledgeable coaches and the understanding of how practice can help. Is part of the goal to separate out the kids so 80 to 90 percent of them understand that they are doing it for the fun and the health and social benefits and not for a scholarship or shot at the pros?
T.F.: Well, I would say that even the elite athletes are doing it for the fun. I don’t think we need to segregate fun and recreation for the kids who are not pursuing the extrinsic rewards of scholarships or later fame or otherwise. The best athletes out there will tell you that fun was the propelling element. Michael Jordan had a love of the game clause early on in his career with the Chicago Bulls that allowed him to go and play anywhere.
AOC: But if you’re trying to get to a high level, isn’t there an aspect of sports that isn’t always going to be fun? If that’s your only barometer, people are going to walk away whether they’re exceptionally gifted or not-so-gifted, and that’s true of anything. At some point, doesn’t the kid need to understand that he or she may have to practice things that aren’t 100 percent fun?
T.F.: Yeah, the motivation can’t entirely be fun if you’re going to reach a higher level. It’s interesting. We did a deal with USA Bobsled and Skeleton where they wrapped a whole sled in the Project Play logo. One of the things we did with them was survey their athletes and ask them why they do what they do, and their three motivations were: desire to be successful, fun and challenge or love of competition. So you’ve got to have all three. Fun alone is not going to get you there, but neither is just a desire to be successful.
AOC: And some of the fun comes as you get better, right? That may be a message that gets lost sometimes, too. Rather than focusing on what will produce more wins or what might earn a college scholarships, a better focus may be, “I’m going to practice more because the more I practice the better I’ll get and the better I get the more fun it will be.”
T.F.: Yes, and there’s a critical role for coaching here. Kids who learn a game well and improve their skills feel good about themselves and want to come back and play. So good coaching is a tool to promote retention through sport. It’s also, of course, a tool to help develop great athletes. That’s why in our Project Play report (scheduled to be released in late January at the Clinton Health Matters conference) one of our eight recommended strategies will be to train all coaches. That includes general philosophy — what are we trying to achieve with kids? Number two: safety issues – emotional and physical safety. Number three: Skills and tactics. Because if you can’t run a practice or you can’t teach a skill, the kids aren’t going to get better and they’re not going to have fun. So there’s a real role for quality coaching and promoting fun. It doesn’t stand at odds. A good coach recognizes the role of fun in the course of teaching.