Wednesday, July 15, 2009

One game every season, no coaches or parents

In the Albany Times-Union, staff writer Mark McGuire makes a bold proposal. From McGuire's June 26 column:

"Every season, for at least one game, every recreational sports league for kids, say, ages 8-16 should play one adult-free game.

"No parents watching. No coaches/managers; captains run the teams. You can have refs/umps, or not. An adult not affiliated with either team could be on hand to help organize, or not. Kids would figure it out. Believe it or not, they can go out and play without you.

"You may not like the idea, but your child might."

Whether the mere presence of adults diminishes youth sports is a topic for another day, and possibly a doctoral thesis. We do some things that kids wouldn't, perhaps couldn't. Mostly safety stuff. Few 11-year-olds would wear batting helmets if not hectored by an adult. We share our experience, too. We can be good teachers, even mentors. On balance, though, I'd say we've deluded ourselves into believing that children at play need us far more than they do.

I also like McGuire's minimalist vision. Not just as it pertains to adults, but to all the stuff that surrounds sports for kids. This morning, I peered into my sons' bedrooms. Piled on shelves is a 12-year supply of ribbons, medals, plastic participation trophies. In many ways, less would have been more.


Jeffrey Rhoads said...

It's great to see articles like Mark McGuire's and yours that promote the idea that kids need exposure to sports without parental involvement.

But is modifying organized sports to include opportunities for "adult-free" games the best solution? I would argue that we should instead look to promote and provide opportunities for kids to engage in self-directed play (neighborhood pickup games) independent of organized sports.

Yes, it's a changed world from when Mark, you, and I grew up -- more two-paycheck families, a greater sensitivity to the safety of our children, and additional electronic distractions. But has it changed so much that organized sports must necessarily fill every corner of a child's sports life? Safe environments, like a YMCA, provide opportunities for older children to still engage in unsupervised, self-directed sports play (e.g., fun pickup basketball game). And with regard to safety, are many of today's neighborhoods really more unsafe than the one's we grew up in?

Self-directed play naturally provides benefits not easily attained within organized sports. As you would probably agree, the pickup games of our youth were much more than just playing sports. They were also about learning how to interact with other children — without the help of parents or other adults. We learned how to recruit neighborhood kids, organize the game, deal with arguments, balance our individual competitive instincts against the needs of others in the group , and otherwise manage the game so that everyone wanted (or at least continued) to play. Often, it was a balancing act to keep everyone satisfied and the game going. Depending on who was playing and our mood, the games emphasized either relaxed fun or more serious competition. But most importantly, we controlled our experience — we learned to become more self-reliant.

To my eyes, promoting children to "go out and play" on their own, is still a viable option -- and when combined with traditional organized sports, provides a well-rounded youth sports experience. For those interested, I talk more about this topic in The Role of Organized Sports in your Child's Life on my blog/website at

Esmerelda said...

Thanks for commenting on my book blog. I wonder if you have read Outcasts United by Warren St. John? He is a NY Times reporter who wrote a full length book about a refugee soccer team.

It is a beautiful story and a totally different take on the youth sports movement. I would love to know what you thought of this team and this it relates to your work.

Amy Cornell
aka Esmerelda

Mark Hyman said...

Hi Amy-

I am just getting stated on "Outcasts United," and have heard wonderful things about it. No doubt, adults can play a constructive role in youth sports. This story, apparently, is Exhibit A.

Dennis Murray said...

We called that playing in the backyard or pick up games when I was young 20 years ago.

Sandlot, stick ball, whatever - but if we structure league sports to have games excluding adults, it's what we go back to.

Kids need more opportunities to play sports against other kids independently - but it should be adults dictating that it happens in a league, it should be turning off the indoor toys and sending them out.