It's no secret that at the highest levels of sport, some athletes, trainers, coaches and administrators will side-step the rules and do whatever it takes to win. But in an era where that culture has trickled-down from our television screens to our local sports leagues, and sometimes even in to our own back yards, I think it's fair time we ask the question: Is the win-at-all-costs mindset ruining youth sports?
At its best, youth and prep sports are a comfortable forum where kids can develop skills, have fun and learn how to win and lose with humility. A blank canvass on which the next generation can begin to harness the benefits of teamwork, camaraderie, perseverance and other invaluable lessons which help them mature into better versions of themselves.
Yet across today's sporting landscape, you don't have to look too far to see that those values are being corrupted. Local newspaper headlines are flush with stories of hazing, hyper-competitive parenting, performance-enhancing drugs, address and birth certificate manipulation, safety concerns, unethical recruiting practices and a whole host of other indiscretions that continue to chip away at the very essence of what these games are meant to be. It's as though some of youth sport's most treasured values, like integrity, respect and the preservation of a level playing field are being discarded, and thrown to the wayside in the name of ambition and hollow victory.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that everyone should get a trophy. I believe there is huge value in teaching our youth to win. In fact, it's that competitive fire and hunger to be the best that drives our society forward. It's also an inextricable part of what makes many of our local communities so remarkable. But on the youth level, that appetite for victory cannot, and must not, be allowed to trample on the fundamental principles of fair play. The future of sport depends on it.
Youth sports in Decline
Perhaps this win-at-all-cost culture is the reason why more kids than ever before are choosing not to participate in youth sports. According to a study published by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, inactivity among children neared 20 percent in 2015, a statistic that has trended upwards for six years running. Other issues like specialization also continue to be a problem, the extent to which the average number of team sports played per child fell 5.9 percent from 2010-2015 according to the same study. Even more disturbing perhaps is a recent report out of the University of Kent to be published in April's Journal of Sports Sciences that suggests high-pressure parenting is driving some youth athletes towards the use of performance enhancing drugs.
So how do we fix it?
The first step in righting this ship is understanding where the negative behavior stems from. More often than not, it's the adults in the room, not the youth participants themselves who initiate it. It's those in charge who sometimes forget their most basic responsibilities: to protect the athletes, to preserve a level playing field and to help create a community in which integrity and winning are not mutually exclusive.
Why is this so important?
Because at the end of the day, it's the kids, teenagers and young adults themselves who are most harmed by unethical behavior. It's the pee wee football player whose safety is put at risk by a coach who decides winning is more important than his well-being. Or the up-and-coming soccer star who is robbed of her chance to win a championship because other schools are illegally recruiting and stacking the deck.
The truth is, this is an important moment for youth sports, and if we're going to stem the tide we have to start asking difficult questions: What lessons are we really teaching our children? That cheating to win is okay? That if you're willing to break the rules, you can get what you want? Are these the values we want to instill in our youth?
As CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, I can tell you that we are faced with these types of behaviors on a regular basis, whether it's the aspiring professional athlete looking for an edge, or a systematic, state-sponsored doping program that prioritizes Olympic medal counts over athlete health and wellness. Time and time again, we see that regardless of the circumstance, it's the ones who are doing it the right way who are forced to suffer most. And as an organization committed to clean sport, we go to work every day to protect those athletes' rights, and to assure people around the world that not only can you compete with integrity - but you can win with it as well.
As John Wooden -- a man who knew a thing or two about winning -- once said, "Be more concerned with your character than your reputation."
For the sake of our youth and the sports they love, I hope we can start heeding that advice, lest the deterioration of our youth sports model lead to the deterioration of something far greater.