Americans are obese. In my eyes, there are three major reasons: (1) The convenience of fast food
restaurants, especially with single parents or families where both parents work full-time; (2) Safety issues which limit children’s free play when parents are not around or able to keep an eye on the kids; (3) A demoralizing youth sports system which chases kids away from sports and exercise.
I can do little to curb one’s appetite for fast food or change people’s perceptions of safety in their neighborhood; however, a radical shift in our approach to youth sports and exercise is possible.
Our perception of youth sports shifted in the 21st Century (or sometime near the end of the 20th Century). Once organized to provide a fun environment where kids exercised, learned new skills and developed self-confidence through accomplishment and overcoming challenges, youth sports exist today for the singular purpose of preparing athletes for scholarships and professional sports. As an individual trainer, my entire profession has been created by parent’s insatiable desire to provide their kids every advantage possible to make the “A” team or the varsity or to get a scholarship. And, I am often conflicted about my role profiteering off the parent’s dreams.
The over-competitive, pre-professional training models turn many kids away from sports; sports sociologist Jay Coakley reports that the peak age for sports participation is twelve years old. Some believe this is natural, as teenagers find other interests, like the opposite sex, and high school teams cut and thus eliminate athletes for competitive reasons.
However, I see a problem when 6th or 7th grade marks the end of many children’s organized sports involvement. When more and more children reject traditional sports for skateboarding, snowboarding, motocross, etc, I see an indictment of the status quo sports system. Even in my sport, basketball, I see the love and appreciation for the And 1 Mix Tapes as an indictment of youth basketball teams and leagues.
Because of safety concerns, among other reasons, youth sport is increasingly structured. Fewer and fewer kids play tag in the streets or pick-up basketball games at the park. Almost all activity is adult-centered. And, in the structured environment, hard work trumps fun and competition trumps learning. Children play sports initially because they are fun, they want to play with their friends and they want to move around freely, but structured sports quickly ignore these interests and hard work, discipline and other values triumph. These values are important, and are a part of sport, but children should not dread practice like eating broccoli or taking a pop quiz. “The object is to remove the idea that play must become work if children are to improve, so challenges replace technique practices, and drills make way for carefully structured games,” (Launder, 2001).
Somehow, fun is a bad word to coaches; coaches do not want to be labeled fun. Coaches seemingly go out of their way to prove they are not fun. There is a certain sense of irresponsibility on the part of the coach if players have fun at practice, as though fun is only associated with frivolous laugh or carefree play. However, kids love challenges; few things are more rewarding, and yes more fun, than overcoming a challenge or obstacle. Learning a new move is fun; learning to throw a baseball is fun; learning to hit a golf ball is fun: when kids have fun, they immediately run to their mother or father to how them what they learned; “Look, mom, I can do a hand-stand,” or “Dad, watch me make this shot.” I remember playing as a kid and running in the house to make my mom come outside and watch me dribble the ball through my legs, or dribble two balls at one time. The process of learning these moves and overcoming the challenge was fun. Fun is not irresponsible or time wasted frivolously.
When sports no longer interest children, they quit. They find something more fun to occupy their time. Sadly, many children find video games or television more fun than sports; for this, we blame lazy kids. Every coach blames lazy kids who are unwilling to work hard. I think the blame is misguided; rather than blaming eleven and twelve year olds, I think adults need to take more responsibility and examine why children quit in droves around twelve years old. Why do children quit playing sports, even if they are cut from a competitive team? Why aren’t there recreational opportunities for children cut from high school teams? Studies show active children are more likely to stay active throughout their life than sedentary children; so, the longer children stay involved in recreational and sports activities the more likely they are to exercise throughout their lifetime. With obesity an epidemic in the country, shouldn’t more be done to insure more children play, whether recreationally or competitively?
Once a person reaches adulthood, and especially if he or she does not remain active into adulthood, the gym culture beckons. Again, we structure fitness and exercise and create an environment people dread, yet feel compelled to do in order to stay healthy or improve their health. Gyms create a mindless culture, where people run on treadmills like rats in a research laboratory or lift heavy objects in order to step them down again. People exercise for health, but there is little fun created nor new skills learned. Some derive pleasure from meeting a personal goal, like a 6:00 mile, but mostly exercise is mind-numbing work. The attitude that exercise must be work resonates from childhood sports.
Kenyan distance runners are among the most dominant athletes in sports. However, they do not overcomplicate training; they run because they love to run. “Kenyan runners, instead of pushing themselves until they are uncomfortable, use comfort and enjoyment as the key to the success. With enjoyment as their bottom line, performance unfolds gracefully. Loving what they do gives them a built-in desire to train. Their outstanding achievements are more a side effect of enjoyment than the result of an obsession to winÃ¢Â?Â¦.when we were children, we exercised just that wayÃ¢Â?Â¦It was just a lot of fun,” (Douillard, 39).
Gyms are now trying to re-create childhood for adults. Some offer dodgeball, while other gyms use urban dance classes or spinning classes. However, the entire concept of needing a gym to get or stay in shape is the problem and one indoctrinated since childhood. In the new adult-centered, structured sports atmosphere, we constantly look to others to provide the exercise, the routine, the equipment, location, etc. Lost is the exploratory nature of sports; hopping on a bike and seeing where it takes you; playing a sport at a park; chasing the dog.
Beyond diet modification, our culture needs to re-think our approach to youth sports and adult exercise. Both need a greater emphasis on fun, learning and play; adults enjoy play too. Whether playing pick-up games with friends (connecting with real people not just email) or learning a new sport/skill like surfing or skateboarding or sailing, everyone will be a little healthier if play becomes a greater part of their lives and we resist the urge to turn all exercise into work and effort. Whether child or adult, find something you enjoy and stay active; the key is not how hard one works to stay in shape, but the consistency of effort, and one is more likely to remain consistent in the pursuit of an enjoyable activity, as opposed to a dreaded workout.