Are Organized Sports Eroding My Child’s Imagination?

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash
Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

Question: Before he began playing organized sports, my seven-year-old had a really rich imagination. He seemed to be able to make sense of the world by working things out through play. He isn’t doing that much these days. I know I’ve got a lot to worry about as a mom. Should I add this to my list?

Discussion: You’ve hit on a really important issue here, and you’re right to be worried. Youth sports are hyper-organized and adult oriented. Structured, organized sports are taught predominately through command instruction: The coach tells you what to do, how, and when. Command instruction, unfortunately, limits creativity. It’s great for army platoons, but not so good for kids.

Pretty much all the experts will tell you that this is an age and stage when it’s best for your child to be engaged in self-structured play (by which we mean activities that he creates for himself ) and games (like tag, capture the flag, and catch) that have very flexible parameters. Even scrimmaging, which some folks would argue is semi-structured free play, can force children to play under traditional rules that box them in. They are often reenactments of adult-oriented rules and games, and therefore do little to promote creativity, unless the kids are in charge and feel free to adjust the rules and negotiate conflicts with playmates.

Creativity is a process that involves your child’s imagination, exploration, and self-discovery, and your hunch that it’s good for your kid is spot-on. As Kim writes in Simplicity Parenting:

In free play, children have to actively problem solve and to take one another’s feelings into account if the play is going to be successful. Success in free play simply means the game continues and continues to be fun. “What should I do if this is, like, the coolest game ever, but Alex doesn’t want to crash the cars? It’s no fun without him, and plus, he’d take the red car with him if he goes.” When everyone has a stake in the play, feelings must be taken into account. In sport, the social problem solving is largely extrinsic, facilitated by coaches, referees, or parents. During a child’s formative stages, between five and twelve, having the freedom to develop, create, and innovate is critical.

This issue is by no means limited to younger children. The way sports are taught at all levels, right up through high school, often inhibits athletic creativity and problem solving—as UNC coach Jenny Levy has seen in the freshman players she trains year after year—rather than fostering them.

You can teach kids the fundamentals, but then you have to leave them alone. The great moves will come to them when they are on their own: that amazing drag-back move with a quick stutter step and change of direction that allows them to blast past defenders, or that combination hesitation-shoulder fake just before they switch hands and drive to the basket.

When left alone or horsing around with their friends in the backyard or park, kids get creative. That’s when they develop the flair that we are mesmerized by in elite athletes. It’s a crucial stage of athletic growth. We have to find ways to free kids to develop their own unique sporting flair, which helps them sharpen their “competitive edge.” It’s something unique to them, which they develop on their own. It’s not something they can be coached to do. It isn’t “trained into” them. It springs from their passion for play.

Solution: There are a number of things you can do to revive your child’s imagination. You can simply take him out of organized sports for a while and give him time to rediscover childhood play and games. You can put him back in when he’s a bit older. It’s important to remember that we are looking at the Whole Child, not just the budding athlete. And it’s not just his imagination and creativity that are at stake here. In our experience, kids who get heavily involved in highly structured organized sports too early are at risk for behavioral problems (see chapter 3).

You may feel that organized sports are important for your child socially. In that case, try reducing the amount of time he spends in this highly structured environment. Simply dialing back his involvement—perhaps to one practice and one game per week—may help revive his imaginative play. One thing is certain: Coaches who push for multiple weekly practices for kids in this age group do not necessarily have your child’s best interest at heart. Pushing kids and overtraining them at this age is likely to dampen their enthusiasm for sports in later years. It may also increase the likelihood that they are sidelined with wear-and-tear injuries.

The best thing you can do for your child at this age—whether you take him out of organized sports for a while or keep him lightly engaged—is to roll up your sleeves and get involved yourself (see chapter 6). Engage with him in unscripted backyard or park play and activities. Just regular kids’ stuff. Add a few of his friends to the mix. Make it fun, but keep it informal. He will thrive in such self-structured and semistructured environments. Your child’s sports play should be put in context.

One thing to bear in mind: Free play can come at a bit of a cost. You have to be willing to put up with play that seems a bit chaotic. In order to provide some boundaries, you’ll need to make the kids understand that tearing through the house in bunches and knocking things over is for outside. When a cluster of kids is crashing through your backyard or basement, your perfectly organized universe will invariably be affected, but it should not be turned on its head. Your home space can be open to the creative messiness that play brings, but it also needs to be respected.

Finally, kids need to understand that in your house the game ends when they pack up the play equipment and put the house back in some order. Maybe it’s not put back perfectly, but good effort needs to be made. If kids walk away from their creative debris, leaving “guess who” to tidy up, they miss an opportunity to learn that play is a process. Like anything else, it has a beginning and an end. It was great that they were there at the beginning of the game, and yes, they should also be there at the end, helping to put away their toys and equipment. Out of chaos, creativity springs forth, and that’s the ultimate goal, but hosting a free-play zone does not mean you should become a one-person cleaning crew. Children and neighborhood friends can be taught to deal with the collateral damage of their unstructured fun. They can be made personally responsible for cleaning up the play paraphernalia they’ve left scattered about. ♦

From Kim John Payne, Luis Fernando Llosa, & Scott Lancaster. Beyond Winnning: Smart Parenting in a Toxic Sports Environment (Lyons Press, Connecticut, 2013)