Football may have saved my life. Growing up in a group home, and with an undiagnosed learning disability to boot, the odds of success were not on my side. But when I joined the high school football team, I learned the value of discipline, focus, persistence, and teamwork -- all skills that have proven vital to my career as a CEO and social entrepreneur.
So don't get me wrong: I love sports. But football in high school is one thing, and football in elementary school is quite another. Sports for kids used to mean games of stickball in the street. Now, toddlers are playing in T-ball leagues, preschoolers are practicing soccer kicks, youth are doing yoga, and boys are even bodybuilding.
We're taking sports too far and starting kids too early. There is nothing inherently wrong with a child participating in an organized sport -- after all, youth have been playing Little League games since 1939 -- but the changing landscape of youth sports has given rise to three disturbing trends:
- Kids aren't getting variety.
Instead of playing games in backyards, on streets, and on multiple teams, kids are increasingly honing in on one sport and practicing the same moves over and over again. Some are even hitting the gym -- IBIS senior research analyst Taylor Hamilton notes, "Youth memberships have become one of the fastest growth areas for the fitness club industry," and memberships in the 6-to-11 age category has almost doubled since 2005.
Repeatedly exercising the same muscles is problematic for a growing child. According to the CDC, "youth sports injuries account for 4.3 million hospital emergency room visits annually with orthopedic surgeons seeing four times as many overuse injuries as five years ago."
Organized team sports impose rules on children. But when children engage in playground and street games, they tend to build off a loosely established set of rules and invent their own as they go. This isn't just important for little kids -- part of the appeal of skateboarding, for instance, is its spirit of invention, imagination, self-expression, and, yes, risk.
Yet as toddlers tie soccer cleats and boys lift barbells, fewer kids are getting time for creative, imaginative, and child-directed play. In fact, since the 1970s, kids have lost about 12 hours per week in free time, including a 25 percent decrease in play. Exercise physiologist Michael Bergeron explains, "When play becomes beset by rules, i.e. don't pick up a soccer ball, don't kick a basketball, kids can lose their natural enthusiasm and willingness to try new things."
Our country's growing obsession with organized sports isn't just hurting our children, but also our communities. As play is siphoned off to gyms and fields, fewer kids are playing in our streets, parks, and playgrounds. Families are increasingly isolated; neighborhood streets are devoid of children; and community gathering spaces sit unused.
Toddlers need to get off the soccer field and onto the playground. Children need to get out of the gym and into neighborhood stickball games. We need to give kids room to create their own rules, set their own terms, and move their bodies in their own ways.