Born to Run

The good, the bad, and the ugly of youth sports

Posted Oct 04, 2016

Source: U.S. Air Force Photo/John Van Winkle

If anyone was born to run, it may well be 18-year-old Briggs Wright, a high school senior and three-sport athlete. While he may not be a runner in the traditional sense of a marathoner, cross-country participant or track star, Briggs is always running... down football fields, across basketball courts, and around baseball diamonds.

Moreover, he's running forward. Toward well-established, meaningful, and values-infused goals. And therein lies the point.

In today's helter-skelter, technology-fueled, and grades/test scores/college admissions obsessed world, we – at least the adults – too often lose sight of the importance of life's simpler joys, such as play and sports and the critical life lessons (and skills) they can impart.

That’s the good of youth sports.

Barry Garst, Ph.D., and Stephanie Garst of Clemson University write in an upcoming book, Youth Sports in America, “Children love to play. Play is a foundational experience that allows children to explore their world, express themselves, enjoy the company of others, and practice a wide range of skills. With characteristics like challenge, novelty, learning, and time, play represents the full integration of body and mind … [and] a primary pathway for human expression. For many youth, play and sport go hand-in-hand, but the relationship between sports and play has evolved over time.”

This evolution, as many have written about, if not mourned, includes a shift from “free” or undirected play to more structured activities organized and supervised by adults.

That’s the bad of youth sports.

Or is it? In truth, solace can be found in the fact that both unstructured play and highly structured sports offer real opportunities for personal growth.

Briggs tells me that for him such growth came both from backyard play with his brother Robert ("It allowed us to be creative in making up games in ways that school did not.”) and eventually through sports, which taught him the values of teamwork and friendship.

Similarly, Laura Usky, in her Huffington Post piece “Important Life Lessons Children Learn Through Sports,” enumerates eight specific principles her daughter gleaned through sports that “will be useful long into adulthood.” 

  1. One step at a time
  2. Teamwork
  3. Don’t give up
  4. Respect
  5. Hard work
  6. Friendship
  7. Sometimes life’s not fair
  8. The value of a dollar

Of those, Briggs zeroes in on “the power of hard work.” He believes, “People either want to push themselves or they don't. Teams force players to always give it their all because they want to earn the right to prove themselves in a game.”

Not insignificantly, play and sports have been linked to the increasingly in-demand “soft skills” of 21st Century Learning, such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity

Amanda Stanec, Ph.D., in a blog post for Move Live Learn, also ties “physical literacy” to the development of such skills. For example, she states, “Individuals who are physically literate move with competence and confidence in a wide variety of physical activities in multiple environments that benefit the healthy development of the whole person.”

For his part, Jason Sebell of Camps Kenwood and Evergreen notes that sports at summer camps also have unique opportunities to impart critical knowledge. He continues, “We scour the earth each year to find the most talented, nurturing adults who not only understand how to teach their sport… but are skilled at helping our campers gain technical proficiency while also develop[ed] their vital 21st century skills …”

Sports at camp are subjects Briggs knows well. He says, “I always loved to play there because I could compete against others who were bigger and better.” Citing contests with counselors, Briggs adds, “I would always find ways to play against someone older. It was an amazing opportunity to take skills from them and adapt my game.”

Unfortunately, there have been notable declines in youth sports participation. In her recent Washington Post article, Julianna W. Miner writes, “According to a poll from the National Alliance for Youth Sports, around 70 percent of kids in the United States stop playing organized sports by the age of 13 because ‘it’s just not fun anymore.’” She argues, “‘It’s not fun anymore’ isn’t the problem; it’s a consequence of a number of cultural, economic and systemic issues that result in our kids turning away from organized sports at a time when they could benefit from them most. Playing sports offers everything from physical activity, experiencing success and bouncing back from failure to taking calculated risks and dealing with the consequences …”

The Garsts note that a recent report by PHIT America “highlighted the drastic decline in youth team sports participation by children 6-17.” The report attributes this decrease to a lack of physical education in schools, a trend toward “travel ball” beginning at young ages, and the explosion of technology and social media use by young people. 

Others, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, say that focus on a single sport to the exclusion of others is leaving some kids feeling burned out, even anxious and depressed. This may be especially the case with younger children and early adolescents. Briggs offers, “I'm so thankful that I was encouraged to play as many sports as possible when I was younger. It led me to find my true passion, which is football.” 

Another potential factor for this drop in participation can be found lurking on the sidelines: parents.

Indeed, in a Boston Globe Magazine article, Jay Atkinson, who runs the Methuen Fun Hockey League program in Massachusetts, explains of kids’ quitting sports, “One reason is the gap between the child’s desire to have fun and the misguided notion among some adults that their kids’ games are a miniature version of grown-up competitions, where the goal is to win … I can say unequivocally that adult expectations are the number one problem.” Atkinson concludes, “And keep in mind that the interior experience of playing a sport, the beauty and the joy of it, is sovereign territory and belongs to the kids themselves.”

According to Briggs, “Parents who are unable to let their kids drive their own pursuits lessen those experiences. Allowing your kids to make the choice of what they want to play is crucial. Suggestions are fine, but pushing a kid into a sport too early can be detrimental to a kid’s long-term love of the sport.”

That is the ugly.

Nevertheless, while perhaps diluted and, in some cases, overly influenced, athletics remain a true north in the lives of many children, teens and emerging adults (just as music, art and similar passions may for others). In his retirement speech, NFL great Peyton Manning said, “Football has taught me not to be led by obstructions and setbacks but instead to be led by dreams.” 

For Briggs, his true north is football. And his dream is to play it in college.

Lucky for him, he was born to run.

Briggs Wright is a senior at North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka, Illinois. He is captain of his school’s varsity football team and also plays varsity basketball and baseball. Briggs is a 2016 graduate of the teen leadership program at the Cape Cod Sea Camps and plans to continue his athletic career in college.