At its best, athletic competition is about playing hard, striving to do your best and having fun -- all while bringing out the best in each other.
That's the beauty of sports to me. And for years, that meant focusing on youth and high school sports, where the influences of ego and greed have historically been minimized.
Sadly, that's no longer the case. Today, ego and greed are increasingly driving the bus at the youth and high school levels.
We can do better.
Our overarching challenge as people who care about sports and the young people involved in them is to confront and overcome the win-at-all-costs (WAAC) and profit-at-all-costs (PAAC) mentalities that are resulting in a variety of insidious abuses in our little leagues and high schools.
In a nation with very little in the way of actual public policy in the sports realm, what we're left with is sports policy being set by executives at the highest level of sports -- pro and big-time college (Big Sport) -- which then trickles down to the high school and youth levels. And what trickles down is rarely in the best interests of the stakeholders involved.
Increasingly, educational, physical, emotional and character development goals for high school and youth sports programs are being brushed aside by Big Sport's win-at-all-costs and profit-at-all-costs ethos.
The professionalization and commercialization of youth sports organizations, our "little leagues," is especially appalling. Adults -- parents and coaches -- are treating youth sports -- especially club and travel teams -- like the big-time pro and college versions of our games. Kids quickly learn from the adults in their lives that winning is priority one, whether that ethic is verbalized or not.
Spontaneous play, where kids form teams, make up the rules and design their own plays, etc., has been replaced by adult-controlled youth sports, in which "grown-ups" create the leagues, teams, rules, and design and call the plays -- often for their own entertainment and ego gratification.
It's not uncommon for youth football teams, made up of 10- and 11-year-olds, to have six or more coaches, including offensive and defensive coordinators. Young people become nothing more than performers in a youth sports entertainment spectacle, under the authoritarian oversight of the head coach.
Moreover, with the growth of club sports organizations and personal sports trainers, generating revenue too often takes precedence over "What's best for the kids?"
We can do better.
Specialization is another disturbing trend in the movement to professionalize our young athletes. Athletes are specializing in a single sport at younger and younger ages. Many 10- to 12-year-old soccer, volleyball, basketball, baseball and softball players are pressured by parents and coaches to play competitively in one sport year-round in an effort to maximize their athletic development. This despite quantitative and qualitative research that has shown that early specialization in one sport is rarely beneficial, and, in fact, is often detrimental to an athlete's overall development.
In addition, research also reveals that kids that specialize in one sport at an early age burnout sooner and suffer more from overuse injuries. Nevertheless, parents are increasingly shipping their kids to specialized sports trainers for training regimens similar to what major college and pro athletes go through.
As the perceived rewards become greater (athletic scholarships, professional sports contracts, Olympic team berths, etc.), parents are pouring more and more time -- and money -- into youth sports. Many families (most often middle and upper-middle class suburbanites -- lower income urban families are usually shut out of the youth sports arms race) will have spent tens of thousands of dollars on club teams, personal training, travel leagues, etc., by the time their child is a senior in high school, all in the hopes of landing a major college athletic scholarship -- an occurrence that is much more rare than most parents and their children realize.
Another disturbing trend at the high school level is the increasing infiltration of corporations on high school campuses. These schools, in search of revenue to support dwindling sports budgets -- or simply to keep up with the Joneses -- have turned to corporate sponsors to fill the bill. Stadiums, gyms, locker rooms and other facilities are now plastered with corporate brands, often "junk food" companies eager to exploit an easily susceptible target audience. All of this while the country is in the middle of a childhood obesity epidemic.
Where has this "win-at-all-costs" (WAAC) and "profit-at-all-costs" (PAAC) model of youth and high school sports led us? Studies have shown that one-third of all kids in sports drop out each year, and 80 percent drop out of sports completely between the ages 12 and 16.
The bottom line is, during the midst of a physical inactivity and obesity crisis, we're using a WAAC and PAAC-based sports model for our young people that's failing to build a lifetime love of sport and physical fitness.
We must do better.