Hey guys, sorry for the long absence. I’ve been collaborating on a few exciting projects which I hope to announce in the near future. I’ve also been sitting on this piece for a while. It’s a very nuanced issue and I’ve been worried about doing it justice while also expressing something that I feel needs to be said. Youth sports are undergoing sweeping reforms. In the past, federations would rebrand their coach education programs and throw in a few buzzwords about positive coaching. This is something different. This goes deeper than coaching methodology or sideline behavior. Traditional youth sport models have suffered blow after blow of empirical research too widespread and serious to be ignored; concussions, injuries from early specialization, emotional burnout from early specialization, emotional trauma from selection processes, and emphasis on winning at a young age to name a few. Youth sport needs to reinvent itself to survive, and it is in the early part of this phase transition that I believe we find ourselves. 

I should preface by saying that I’m fairly confident my readers are people already on board with and often involved in this overhaul. Were I writing to the red-faced coach humiliating a twelve-year old, or the academies that discard youth players like yesterdays’ newspaper I’d take a much different tone. From the interactions I’ve had, my sense is that most of the coaches, parents, and educators who read this blog are deeply concerned with the well-being of children and the societies they live in, have some understanding of self determination theory and autonomy supportive coaching and understand the difference between nonlinear and traditional pedagogies. So with that in mind I’d like to open a discussion on childhood, autonomy, and infantilization. 

I recently came across a passage in a biography that shocked me in its similarity to my own childhood experience. 

“When I went out with my mother, her friends would always talk down to me. Idiotic baby talk in a strained voice – endless stupid questions that were meaningless. It irritated me. So I gave them strange unexpected answers. They would become confused and embarrassed and always they would say ”how precocious!” It puzzled me that adults talked to children in such a manner. I wondered why they talked like that. I came to the conclusion that although they had all been children they had somehow forgotten their childhood. It was an alarming insight. A little while later I thought, if they have forgotten their childhood, when I grow up I will forget mine. And that horrified me! It was a terrible shock. To forget everything! To forget me as I am now!” (A test of courage: Michel Thomas)

This was also a central dilemma of my childhood and I swore to myself not to forget how it felt. Yes, there are plenty of parents who falsely imagine their children will grow up to be professional athletes and push them in very inappropriate ways, but we make a mistake in thinking this is the only problem in youth sports. On the other side of the spectrum we can become dismissive of the work children put in, and what sports mean to them. To say that every young child who trains with the ball for hours must be acting out the wishes of their parents denies them the agency they deserve. 

I think at the core of both issues is the desire of children to be seen and taken seriously for the human beings that they are in that moment. This isn’t as easy as it seems. Thinkers like Lacan and Hegel have noted our tendency to retroactively create paradises of the past. Childhood is a concept that only emerges through its own loss. The very concept of childhood is necessarily an adult one. It’s only in our perspective as adults that we claim to know what childhood was. What does this mean for children? That their experience of being is usually only seen through a certain refraction. Children are fortunate if they come across one or two adults who can see them as they are. 

When children are not seen for who they are, they usually become props in some type of adult narrative. Of course here we’re all familiar with the overbearing parents and coaches whose narcissistic narrative and quest for glory subsumes the child’s efforts, but there are many more possibilities. Often, the narrative that adults are trying to keep in place is that of childhood as a happy time of frolicking in fields of daisies and puppies without a care in the world. This illusion is equally damaging and probably more pervasive. What it leads to is a type of infantilization that excludes the possibility of anything intense or less than carefree. Children are supposed to be naive, whimsical, and certainly not prone to doing difficult things of their own accord. 

So while I agree that far too often we’ve tried to make youth sports conform to adult professional ideals, I’m also hoping we don’t try to limit them to our preconceived notions of what children are capable of. I’ve come across children who played for many different reasons. The game occupies a different place in every life. For some, the game will remain a casual past-time. Others, though, are crying out for a coach who recognizes how much the game means to them and respects the efforts they make to improve. I don’t believe the age of the child can answer this question. To know what response is appropriate requires knowing the human you’re interacting with. 

Further, I’ve never seen a child dedicate hours to honing their tic-tac-toe skills. Part of the appeal of sports is the fact that they transcend us. We know we can’t “master” them. There will always be heartbreaking losses and setbacks. I also find that children usually have less problems with the stratification of talent than adults. Rec programs exist in most communities but many children still prefer to play more competitively. This isn’t a shameful distinction between warriors and weaklings that adults sometimes try to make it. Again, I agree with the critique of early selection as I think it’s usually been in service of the clubs/organizations rather than the kids, but I also think it’s fair that children should be able to play with and against other children who take the game as seriously as they do, if they’d like to. This would emerge naturally in unsupervised play anyways.  

So is there an “elite” U9 player? If we’re talking about elite in terms of conforming to professional adults ideals then the answer is a resounding no. There are children, though, who interact with the game at a very meaningful level on their own terms and this should not be discounted. Numerous times I’ve been inspired by the passion, dedication, and energy young players train with. I recognize that this doesn’t make them miniature adults, but I’ve had far too many kids tell me they feel minimized and not taken seriously by well-meaning adults to not worry about infantilization as we look to write a new chapter in youth sport. 

In the past we’ve tried to fix the game in ways that reduced the negative aspects only by watering down the whole enterprise. A solution that only works at an artificially reduced intensity will never withstand the test of real life. To allow the game to retain its power and magic means working through these issues at a deeper level. If we can have some of these difficult conversations (many of which exist at societal scale) we might just be able to clear enough space for the game we love to heal and bring joy to generations to come.  

“We don’t yet know, above all, what the world might be like if children were to grow up without being subjected to humiliation, if parents would respect them and take them seriously as people.”

― Alice Miller (author of The Drama of the Gifted Child)

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