Problems in Youth SportsRelative Age EffectSpecialization

In late February I was traveling and speaking in Sydney and Perth, Australia, working for a variety of sports organizations including the Football (Soccer) Federation of Australia, Football New South Wales, the Western Australia Department of Sports and Recreation, and the WA Aussie Rules Football Committee. While on site, I got to visit the brand new $1.5 billion Optus Stadium in Perth. As I toured the stadium with Project Manager Ronnie Hurst, he kept speaking about the guiding principle they used to build this incredible venue. From the placement of every seat and cup holder to how much leg room it had, from the location of every food stand to access for people with disabilities, every single aspect of the four-year project had to check a single box:


Everything they built or designed had to put the comfort and viewing experience of the fans above all else. After all, wasn’t it about them? Wasn’t it their money and willingness to spend it that paid the bills and allowed the stadium to exist in the first place? As a result, anything that did not benefit the fans did not become part of the project. This simple guiding principle of “Fans First” was essential to building an incredible fan experience in the stadium.

It got me thinking about youth sports all over the world, from grassroots clubs to schools to professional team academies across every sport. Shouldn’t they have a guiding principle as well? If our goal is to build an incredible child experience in sports, shouldn’t everyone ask themselves, whenever they make a decision:


The simple question should be asked by everyone in sports, over and over. It is the box that should be ticked whenever a decision is made, or a program is implemented. It is the question that should be asked by every coach as he or she designs a practice, or signs up for competition. Much like Optus Stadium asked “Does this benefit the fans?” and Google always ticks the box “Don’t be evil”, every youth sports decision should adhere to “This serves the needs of the children.”

Yet so often that does not happen. If we want children to keep coming back to sports it better fulfill their wants and needs. Yet over and over, decisions are made, programs are implemented, teams are formed, and competitions are structured to serve the needs of adult administrators, coaches and parents, but not the kids. Organizations rarely ask “Is this what best serves the kids?” This is maddening. This is destructive. This is why kids quit to the tune of 70% dropout before middle school.

My friend Dr. Richard Bailey, head of research at the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education says it best: Let’s be honest, most elite sports programmes are not designed to meet children’s needs; they are designed entirely for adult ambitions.”

Here are 6 examples of common situations that do not serve the children playing sports, and potential solutions:

  1. Adult politics in youth sports: I am so tired of seeing great coaches not hired, kids not being selected, and youth sports organizations making decisions based on egos and keeping adults happy, to the detriment of the kids. I am tired of hearing small town sport leagues kicking out families who stepped up against an abusive coach or influential parent.  Solution: We need good people to run for local sports boards. We need people who can see the big picture and beyond their child’s team. But perhaps, in the long run, I often wonder if the model of parent-run non-profit boards and sport organizations is broken and will ever be able to make proper decisions regarding the well-being of many children when so many decisions are made because of egos and the well-being of one child – their own. Perhaps it is time for a rethink (but that is for another article).
  2. Competition and match sizes that do not fit the needs of the child: American football 3rd graders still playing 11v11 tackle football, and up until recently American 8-year-olds playing 11v11 soccer or full ice hockey, or as I just learned about Aussie Rules football children playing 18v18 at every age!  The adult pushback to playing small-sided games in every sport has been immense, and completely misguided. The kids’ game is NOT supposed to look like the adult version, which is played with the most complicated rules, the most players, and the biggest spaces. We don’t have adult chairs in a 1st-grade classroom, we have child-size furniture. We don’t teach calculus to 2nd graders because “that is what math is going to be like later on, so we need to get you ready for it now.” We teach building blocks so they are prepared for it later on. If the child version looks like the adult version in team sports you are doing it wrong and NOT SERVING THE KIDS!  Solution: After Belgium bombed out in the group stage of Euro 2000, they knew they needed a revamp. The result was a total rethink of how children’s soccer was done. In my upcoming podcast with Belgium FA Coaching Education Director Kris Van Der Haegen we speak about these changes,  including what they call “Dribbling Soccer” for 5-7-year-olds. They play 2v2, one field player, and one goalkeeper, with short games and constantly changing opponents. It fits the needs of young children learning to dribble, not wanting or needing to pass, and scoring lots of goals. They play small-sided games until U14, as does Spain and many other countries we want to emulate in soccer. Belgium has gone from #66 to #1 in the world soccer rankings, Spain won a World Cup and 2x European Championships. In the US, we still have grumblings on every sideline about how 11-year-olds need a larger field to play correctly. Ahhhhh!
  3. Forcing children to choose a single sport far too young, and not teaching fundamental movement skills before layering sport-specific techniques, which leads to increased injury rates and burnout. Just this week more evidence was released about the detriments of single-sport specialization and too many hours of organized activity before age 12 by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. They don’t want our business! Among the findings:
    • 54.7% of parents encouraged their children to specialize in a single sport
    • 57.2% of parents hoped for their children to play in college or pro (only about 4% of high school athletes play in college, less than 1% go pro)
    • Children whose parents invest in private lessons and trainers have a higher injury risk than those children who do not.
    • Solution: Let young children sample multiple sports. Forcing a 9-year-old to play only soccer, basketball, baseball or any sport and making them promise to not play other sports DOES NOT SERVE THE BEST INTEREST OF THAT CHILD! Yet it happens all the time! Not providing fundamental movement training within your sport also does not serve the interest of the child. We must stop short-changing our children’s physical literacy development in order to win some meaningless competition or increase the bottom line of the business.
  4. Early “talent” identification despite the evidence that you are choosing the older kids, not the better ones. The evidence of the Relative Age Effect is clear: when we select “talented” and “gifted” individuals at young ages, we are basically selecting the ones who won the calendar lottery and are born closer to the arbitrary calendar cutoff.  The younger we make cuts and funnel kids out of the system, the more likely we are to get it wrong. Heck, the NFL wastes tens of millions of dollars a year trying to select 23-year-old talent, do you really think we can effectively select 9-year-olds? I have written about this here and here if you want to go deeper, but in a nutshell, making cuts and giving additional resources to select groups of effectively ‘older not better’ kids at young ages does not serve the needs of the children. Solution: Psychologist Johan Fallby says it best in this great interview with Mark O’Sullivan: “As many as possible, as long as possible, in the best environment possible.” Teach them all, devote resources to as many kids as possible, let them grow and see what happens after that. In Belgium, for example, if a doctor approves it a child can play DOWN a year with kids the same developmental age as him or her, allowing them to compete with similar ‘age” kids. Imagine that happening in Little League baseball?
  5. Joystick sideline coaching from parents and coaches that prevents learning. The amount of clubs that condone sideline coaching from parents and coaches, who are simply trying to ensure that their kids do not fail the sports test, is astonishing. So many talk a good game but when asked to confront it they say “the parents are the paying customer, they can do what they want.” That is not what a doctor says about a sick child even though the parent pays the bill. Neither should sports clubs. Solution: Clubs and schools should have a zero-tolerance policy for sideline coaching and abusive behavior toward referees. They need to stop being afraid some parent might take little Johnny and leave if they tell dad to be quiet. Good riddance. You will gain far more members by serving the needs of the kids and not Johnny’s dad. And along with that, slowly but surely the intelligence and problem solving will happen on the field and not on the sidelines. We need to Win the Race to the Right Finish Line.
  6. Coaches who create learning environments that are the least effective way to transfer knowledge: Many coaches still have kids stand in lines and mindlessly repeat the same technique over and over believe this is the most effective way to teach, or what we call blocked practice. It is the least effective way to teach if you want techniques to transfer to match situations that require assessment and decision making on the fly. Yet drive out to almost any field and I see coaches running sessions, and coaching directors ignoring those poorly run sessions, where there are no defenders, no decisions, no direction to the game, and thus no long-term learning. Lots of cones and lines look neat and tidy, but they do not serve the kids. Training ugly does. Solution: Randomize your practices. Use the whole-part-whole method where you play first and last, with smaller size activities in the middle of training. Play games, and add defenders as soon as possible if you are practicing to be better during the competition, instead of just at practice. (Read this book, Make it Stick by Peter Brown if you want all the direct research links.) Just stop hitting 50 x 7 irons in a row and calling it learning or saying it is the most effective way to make someone better.  Mark Bennett’s, founder of PDS Coaching, has what he calls the Rule of 3, a three-step process to solving problems where (1) the player works it out (2) the player with another player works it out, and finally (3) coach and players work it out. Our job as a coach, as Mark O’Sullivan says, “is not to correct everything, it is to observe them solving the problems themselves.”

This topic is more a book than a blog so I will stop my rant here. But I will leave you with this.

If you are a coach or sports administrator, please stop making decisions without asking “Does this serve the needs of the children playing?”

If you are a parent signing your child up for an activity, ask the organization “How does competition format serve the needs of the child?”

If you are a member of an organization, when you go to the AGM and they tell you how money is being budgeted, or which coaches are assigned where, or what funds are being used for, ask “How does this serve the needs of the children playing?”

Perth stadium put its fans first and built an incredible venue.

Youth sports must start putting its kids first to build an incredible experience.


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