Are adult created norms contributing to the design of a system that no longer meets the needs of the child in sport?


Recently in an interview with the Washington Post. Mark Hyman professor of Sports Management at George Washington University said “If we wiped the slate clean and reinvented youth sports from scratch by putting the physical and emotional needs of kids first, how different would it look? Nothing would be recognizable.”

Are adult created norms contributing to the design of a system that no longer meets the needs of the child in sport?

There is a an argument that I have heard many coaches and clubs  using with regard to the child’s early organised sports environment. Basically it is saying that some kids want an environment driven by an early selection process where they get to play with the best players now. This I have heard been echoed by parents where they claim that their son/daughter needs to be in a more “serious” training environment to get the best start for their development. I have heard these comments in relation to children especially between the ages of seven (possibly still believes in Santa Clause) and ten. Reflecting on this takes me back to some quotes from interviews I did with Lynn Kidman, Dr Martin Toms and Richard Bailey

“It is the societal expectation through professional sport that has screwed up the focus of learning and development of children in sport”- Lynn Kidman

“They see the sport and activity and how it is managed, coached and reflected in the club. Like their family backgrounds, they accept what they experience as the norm – so we need to ensure that the agendas and complexities of adults when ‘running’ clubs do not affect them”- Dr Martin Toms

“….there is a significant conflict between how children learn and how elite programmes operate.  Until very recently, talent development programmes were designed without any reference or consideration to healthy development, and treated children like mini adults.  Let’s be honest, though, most elite sports programmes are not designed to meet children’s needs; they are designed entirely for adult ambitions”- Richard Bailey

If a child is been fed information that a certain type of environment is the norm then are they only naturally going to seek that environment out?

Is this a norms issue that leads to environments where performance is often mistaken for learning for both the young player and the coach (our coaches are also learners)?

So that was me thinking out loud. Some people heard me and were kind enough to contribute

Richard Bailey (International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education)   “The simple answer to your question is ‘yes!’ Children and parents are exposed to an endless stream of images of adult sports practices, and none of healthy youth development. So they naturally assume the adult way is the way. The solution has to be more effective communication of appropriate expectations, backed up by the evidence that diversification and fun in the early years is probably more likely to result in positive experiences, staying in sports, and success”.

Al Smith (International Coach Developer and Co-creator of “If time permitted of course it would be great to call those coaches/parents out on exactly what a ‘serious’ training environment looks like but you could end up spending a lot of what little time you have coaching the adults rather than coaching the kids…

For me the biggest enemy of progress is an environment that allows any kid (or their parent) to define themselves as a ‘high performer’ – that’s just status anxiety masquerading as development – but as you’ve highlighted the biggest barrier to getting past that isn’t the kid, it’s the adults shaping their experience. Some challenges are culturally deep rooted but on the other hand I think people are open to change when they can access the right information to constructively challenge their beliefs and the right environment to explore doing things a different way. A developmental rather than performance focus would help develop life skills that will travel well beyond the playing field.

One of the things we’re short of is well told stories about the journeys to excellence from people who’ve taken a circuitous route. The media is far more interested in the story of the prodigious talent made good (McIlroy, Woods, Hamilton, …) – ironically a part of this fascination is watching them fall off the rails when their career is on the wane given how unbalanced they’ve become from defining themselves in this way from such a young age. I think there is a big role here for governing bodies of sport as they can be strong advocates for the cultural tone of their sport.

One thing that springs to mind when we talk about ‘serious’ environments is a phrase I’m increasingly using to describe great learning as ‘purposefully playful’. In other words it’s for the very reason that we do take this seriously that we need to shape an environment that guides these young learners towards finding purpose by enabling them to engage their curiosity and desire to get better.

I guess the biggest job of work is to help people understand and get comfortable with the ultimate coaching paradox: The more we talk about learning stuff and the less we talk about winning stuff the better we get at developing excellence and the more likely we are to win”.


When i was 8 I wanted to play with the best (adults +kids) but I also wanted to be an astronaut and invisible


9 thoughts on “Are adult created norms contributing to the design of a system that no longer meets the needs of the child in sport?

  1. I just finished reading a thesis on inclusion in school and its implication. The researcher touched on a similar thing – norms create behaviors that express “culture”, based on social representation theory (SRT). Social representations (norms) dictate how we interact with our environment. Reading the thesis I was struck by the relevance this has in the sports space as well.

  2. A few years back, shortly after taking over the Presidency of a youth hockey association, I had a meeting with a group of parents to discuss the direction that we were taking with their kids. One of the first questions asked of me was if we were a “developmental” or “elite” program. My answer was simple, developmental. This of course did not make a lot of people in the room very happy and it worsened when I told them that “elite and 8 years old” should never be put together. Yes, their kids were 8. I capped it off by telling them that the worst part of youth sports are the parents.

  3. It’s no longer enough to point fingers and identify the problems. Frankly, there’s a lot out there which tells us don’t specialize early, reframe success to deemphasize winning, trained coaches matter all the while coaching education has become cost prohibitive (see US Soccer), we structure leagues to value winning and organize clubs and teams to select (or encourage self-selection/dropout) the biggest, fastest and strongest to compete right now. You and many others writing on this topic offer us a do-over and ask us to imagine a better system and yet, no concrete models or expamples exist that have the potential create systemic change. If we are not talking about tossing competitive sports out the window for youth, what parts of youth sports are worth keeping and why? And, what systemic changes can we truly make?

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