Youth Competitive Athletics: Is the Appeal to 'Just Have Fun' Realistic?

Audio file

Parents whose schedules are controlled by your 4 or 5 year old children's sport practices and games, this discussion is for you.

Parents  whose children are approaching 14 and are worried that your child is not going to be the next superstar on the court or field, this discussion is also for you.

Our coaches panel is's first extended consideration of the contested value and consequences of going along with a society that puts your children on the playing field as soon as they can walk. Our panel, organized by founding Board member, Barney Maloy, features three university and high school team coaches and a university sport faculty member and psychologist  with an expertise in teaching coaches.

What we found out was that all of these very successful coaches would rather talk about changing sport so that its practices  and traditions offer enduring values for lifelong learning, than the learning we define sport success by today: through the number of wins we have.

If these coaches were not winners would they be on our panel? Yes.  There are many more ways to define winning than we have complacently accepted. And many of these alternative ways are not new. As a society, we only need to have the will and perseverance (both sport values) to make some pretty drastic changes. Not for the adults in our society. But for our kids.

(From left to right: Bart Bund, Brian Townsend, Jim Richardson, Barney Maloy, Tom George, Jane Nixon)

Please feel free to extend the discussion in our forum on sport ethics by commenting on the many ideas for redesigning youth sport offered by our panelists: Tom George, University of Michigan School of Kinesiology faculty member; Jane Nixon, Ann Arbor Public Schools special education teacher and Pioneer High School women's field hockey coach; Jim Richardson, University of Michigan women's swimming coach; and Brian Townsend, University of Michigan, director of operations, men's basketball team.  

Below are approximate times for each general subject discussed during the podcast. To skip to a specific section, click the button on the moving bar and slide it to the correct time.

0:00 – Introduction.
0:22 – Benefits of competitive athletics for children.
3:01 – Negative aspects of competitive athletics for children
12:05 – What is “burn out” for athletes?
14:00 – How is burn out affecting athletes today and at what ages?
16:26 – Tom George on how athletes can deal with burn out and its causes.
18:04 – Jim Richardson’s thoughts on how burn out for swimmers has changed over the years.
19:30 – Jane Nixon on how burn out and time commitment for athletes at Pioneer High School have changed over the years.
21:41 – Brian Townsend’s take on burn out in basketball and the NFL.
27:22 – Tom George on the long-term effects of burn out.
30:30 – How did Brian Townsend transition from playing in the NFL to pursuing a career through basketball?
32:03 – Is there a trend for children to specialize in one sport?
37:08 – Jim Richardson on when and whether children should specialize solely on swimming.
41:00 – Does specializing in one high school sport increase chances of college scholarships?
43:45 – Have youth sports been “hijacked” by parents and adults?
46:40 – Why are children drawn to “X-games” and other newly popular sports?
47:56 – Jane Nixon on biggest mistakes parents make for their children in competitive athletics.
50:05 – Jim Richardson’s take on whether student-athletes perform better in class during the athletic season and messages parents and coaches are sending to children.
56:40 – Jane Nixon on whether student-athletes perform better in class during the athletic season.
57:30 – Tom George’s thoughts on what the role of a youth coach should be.
1:01.02 – Should all kids get a chance to play prior to high school?
1:02:06 – Jim Richardson discussing changes in high school swimming coaches over the years.
1:05:10 – What changes could we make to improve youth athletics?
1:06:33 – Should there be higher requirements to be a coach when dealing with children?
1:09:25 – One piece of advice to youth athletes from each panelist.

If you'd like to read more about this panel discussion, Pete Cunningham wrote a piece about it for

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