Youth sports are a big business. Parents spend millions of dollars in the hopes their kid will score an NCAA scholarship or eventually go pro. Given the money poured into the youth sports industry every year, it’s only natural that coaches, performance experts, and equipment companies would sweep in to claim a piece of the pie. And with so much on the line, these would-be youth sports gurus often offer dubious advice that purportedly guarantees a child’s future success. At best, the myths spread by the youth sports industrial complex are responsible for draining parental bank accounts. At worst, the myths can actually cause harm to a child.
These are the top 8 youth sports myths, bandied about experts and businesses that need to be sidelined by parents — not only to make sports more fun, but to make them safer, too.
Children Should Specialize in a Sport Early
The story goes like this: if a child can master the mechanics of a golf or bat swing before they can read, then it is a sure sign that they will catch the eye of a recruiter. Also, it makes a super cool Instagram video.
However, there are some major problems with earlier specialization. For one thing, the repetitive training of a single skill can lead to injury. Kids who specialize early also run the risk of burning out and growing to hate the game they’re being pushed into.
To prevent burnout and injuries from the overuse of a specific movement, like a golf swing or a baseball pitch, sports medicine experts suggest that children have a diverse sports repertoire. As a kid uses their body in a variety of sports, they are actually developing skills that will feed into their sport of choice and make them a better player in the long run.
Plus, taking a few months off to play something totally different is a good way to keep a kid’s life full of fun.
Children Don’t Have to Like a Sport to Achieve in It
Parents who buy into early specialization often see their kids losing interest in their chosen sport. This can often lead parents and coaches to talk about developing grit and perseverance, “gutting out” the difficult, repetitive training.
While it’s true that a kid can dig deep and joylessly progress, is that really the point of youth sports? The fact is that a kid really isn’t learning perseverance and grit through coerced practice. Instead, they are learning to submit to authority.
To better teach those kids, it’s imperative to allow a kid to play a diverse range of sports that they enjoy but may not be particularly good at. When a kid who is a natural running back (but hates being a running back) is a poor basketball player, it means they have to lean on a different set of skills to stay in the game and compete. These challenges are what actually teach grit and perseverance, and those lessons are much better received when a kid is playing with a smile on their face.
Also, childhood is meant to be a time for having fun and gathering a diversity of experiences, without which a child will be lost as they become independent adults.
Kids Should be Taught There are No Losers
There remains a trend in youth sports aimed at the youngest players to shield them from the concept of winning and losing. “It’s all about play,” explain the well-intentioned organizers. Kids who are not given the opportunity to lose miss out on the opportunity to learn how to face adversity and disappointment with grace.
Kids need to understand what it means to lose. But they also have to see that it’s not a devastating outcome. A good way for parents to help a kid become better losers is to change the adversarial paradigm of an opponent. Parents can help kids understand that an opponent is there to help challenge a child and make them better. This turns an adversary into an ally.
Yes, there are lessons to be learned in losing that can only make a person a better player. But it’s also important to be able to brush off a loss. Because even in a loss, playing is (and should be) about having fun.
Hard Work Means a Child Can Go Pro
Many parents push their children in hopes that they’ll get an athletic scholarship, become an Olympian, or even go pro. The problem is that, even with a huge amount of work, the chance a kid will realize that future is incredibly slim.
That’s not to say that parents should give up encouraging a kid. In fact, if a child is motivated to play, is having fun and continues to develop natural athletic skills, they should be given every opportunity. But as soon as they lose the joy of their sport, there’s really no reason to keep hammering away. The fact is that even a great little league pitcher might never make the big show and no parent wants to spend a fortune so a kid can live a hardscrabble life in a no-name cactus league.
Coaches Will Take Care of Everything
Some parents feel their responsibility to foster a child’s love for sports end as soon as they open the minivan door at the athletic field. From there, they assume the coach will take care of all a kid needs to have fun and achieve.
That’s not really the case. Coaches are often stretched thin between all their charges. So, they can drill physical skills into a child, but do not necessarily have the capacity to work on the social and emotional skills a child needs to succeed in sports. That’s where parents come in.
A good sports parent is not one trying to outdo the coach by yelling from the sidelines. Rather, they help their child gain additional perspective once the game is over. Good sports parents ask their child if they had fun. They talk about what a kid feels like they were really good at and what they feel they could work on. They talk to their kid about what it feels like to lose and offer perspective on the tender emotions that surround defeat.
Strength Training for Kids Requires Weights
Some parents feel that the best way for a kid to get better at a given sport is for them to get stronger. In order to make them stronger, they’ll put them on a weight bench much earlier than is advisable.
While it’s true that strength training is important for kids involved in sports, children should start with a strength training regimen that uses their own body weight. That is absolutely enough to build muscles necessary to throw, hit and run.
Parents should also take a broader perspective of what strength training actually is. Giving a kid free reign to attack a playground with running, climbing and dangling is akin to sending them to the weight room. These play activities naturally build muscles, balance, and other skills necessary for a wide range of sports.
Weight training that includes slinging steel shouldn’t really be pursued until a child is approaching adolescence. Even then, weight training should be completed under the supervision of a professional who can teach a child the best lifting mechanics possible.
When a Kid Gets Hurt They Should Walk it Off
When a kid gets hurt while playing, many coaches and parents encourage them to “walk it off” and get back in the game. That’s a great way to compound injuries and set a kid up for a lifetime of trouble.
Consider a sprained ankle: even the least severe sprain requires at least 10 days to heal. The most serious sprains can take up to 90 days. Not treating a sprain correctly (rest, compression, and cold to reduce swelling) can mean that ankle problems could return up to 20 years later.
Any injury should be taken seriously. There is not enough at stake in a youth game that a child should put their health on the line. Playing injured is a dumb idea. It doesn’t teach a child anything other than they should not listen to their body.
The Right Equipment and Technique will Protect Kids from Concussions
Head injuries are a huge topic in youth sports, particularly football. In fact, a great deal of effort has been made to change techniques and equipment in order to reduce the risk of concussions. While helpful, techniques and gear will never reduce the risk of head injuries to zero.
A recent study looked at 100 children who participated in youth football, and recorded 40,000 hits to the head during a season of games and practices. Granted, not all of those hits were deemed concussive events. However, sports medicine has become increasingly concerned about the cumulative effect of multiple sub-concussive events which could lead to memory loss, depression, and other symptoms of brain damage.
Football isn’t the only sport that has a head injury problem. Concussion risk is also found in most high contact sports including wrestling, martial arts, and hockey. There’s also a risk in sports not commonly associated with a ton of contact, like soccer.
Notably, no amount of fancy equipment or proper technique will ever remove the risk of head injury in high contact sports. It’s important for parents of children going into those disciplines to be very vigilant when it comes to hard hits.