The status quo never remains as such in the world we live in. Society is always in flux in relation to our values, attitudes, and beliefs. Take for example smoking. Not that long ago, it was acceptable to smoke in public places, and most parents didn’t think twice about smoking around their children. Just over a decade ago, same-sex marriage in Canada was not legal. Today, not only is it legal, but one could argue the pride parades across the country are some of the most celebrated. The point is that societal values are constantly evolving.
However, the direction that our society is heading cannot always be viewed as positive. Lately, I would argue that the increasing rate of specialization and commercialization in youth sport is both troubling and problematic. Having been involved in sport nearly my entire life, I feel compelled to try and articulate what I see as a worrying trend for our kids, parents, and the community.
First and foremost, there is an increasing emphasis on one sport, hockey. It seems that hockey is now a 12 month sport; minor hockey runs from September to April, spring hockey from May to June, and hockey camps run during the summer months. The schedule for a 10-year old resembles that of a professional hockey player. This reality hit me during my time at Brock University about three years ago. Our varsity team was helping out with an Atom team (Ages 9-10) in Niagara Falls. Following the session, I spoke to a parent about how often the kids were on the ice and was told that it was anywhere between five to six sessions a week. I am sure that many parents reading this can relate. But the question remains, when do these kids have the time to be kids? Is being on the ice that much at that age beneficial?
Although the majority of my involvement in sport is at a hockey rink, I know that this is a trend not isolated to hockey. I have heard from parents and noticed myself that other sports, whether it is baseball, soccer, or basketball, are increasingly encouraging their athletes to focus on just one sport. During my youth, I was a dual sport athlete in both hockey and softball. I loved both sports for different reasons, but could never imagine having to choose one over another. In fact, I never had to, even during my time as a Jr. Hockey player. I was able to balance both.
Contrast that with a recent group of talented athletes from the East Hants area who, at the age of 12, were not able to compete at this year’s Eastern Canadian Softball Championships because the Nova Scotia Major Bantam hockey league started in the middle of August. Granted, as talented athletes continue to ascend in their sport of choice, inevitably priorities may have to be chosen. However, asking 12-year olds to choose between sports at such a young age is frankly a shame.
Hand-in-hand with the increasing specialization has been the explosion of commercialization of youth sport. Business enterprise is now commonplace in an area that was traditionally volunteer and community-based programming. Now more than ever there are sustainable careers for individuals who are facilitating development for youth in a variety of different sports. Whether or not this increase of for-profit sport programs are positive or negative can truly be seen both ways. A for-profit program may offer enhanced training, coaches who can dedicate more time towards developing athletes, and programming that is tailored to an individual athlete. However, the privatization of youth sport also means for even higher costs to access, particularly for athletes who come from lower to middle income families, and can negatively impact the community-based sport associations.
The question remains: how did we get here? Somewhere along the line the demand for elite, specialized, and increased training became a reality. The truth is that there is now a vicious cycle of parent’s seeking additional training, outside of minor sport, and that demand being met by those willing to provide a service. As increased opportunities for year-round and specialized training for youth become available, parents inevitably want to provide an equal playing field for their children. This “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality means that kids are now formally practicing a particular sport longer, and more frequently, than ever before.
One cannot necessarily blame the organizations or individuals delivering for-profit services to youth. The demand is certainly there, and if not them, someone else would likely fill that void (Disclaimer: I have run Friday morning goalie sessions for East Hants youth for the last three years). Parents likewise want what is best for their children, and faithfully spend thousands of dollars hoping to create a beneficial opportunity for their children. However, we need to ask ourselves; what is the end goal for our kids?
A fair assessment would be that many parents are now seeing youth participation in sport as a means to an end rather than simply an opportunity for healthy lifestyle and lifelong values learned along the way. Values and skills such as work ethic, sense of community, time-management, and conflict resolution, will be far more valuable to almost all of our youth athletes as opposed to the fundamentals of their particular sport of choice. Lately, I can’t help but feel that we have lost this as a core aspect of what youth sport is about.
What this means for kids, parents, and our communities is not yet known. As aforementioned, the world is constantly in flux, and perhaps our current trajectory in relation to youth sport has many more positives than this writer has yet to recognize.
Kody Blois is a graduate of Saint Mary’s University, President of the East Hants Sport Heritage Society, and is pursuing a Juris Doctor/Master of Public Administration degree at Dalhousie University. You can follow him on twitter @kodyblois