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Are Youth Athletes Just Climbing Into Small Holes?

By Jack Bowen

Are Youth Athletes Just Climbing Into Small Holes?

jack-bowenA good analogy has the power to shake you, to force you to evaluate something you’re unfamiliar with and then apply that judgment to something of great familiarity. It allows us to see the forest for the trees. Because when you’re amidst the same trees for a while, it’s truly hard to see the forest, much less to even think to step back and look for it.

Such an analogy has stuck with me since I heard it at a philosophy conference nearly 20 years ago. Smith College professor Albert Mosley asked the audience to imagine competitions in which children compete to climb into the smallest holes possible. We’d have them train for hours each week, take them out of school repeatedly, hiring specialized coaches to do so and eschewing other valuable activities in the process.

“That’s silly,” the audience collectively murmured. “Who would allow such a thing?”

But we already have something similar in place, and we allow—worse, we demand—children often spend 20-30 hours per week doing so. They train to swim back and forth as fast as they can, jump over a stick, throw a ball into a circle or, in the case of the sport I coach, get a ball into a floating rectangle (or, keep it out, as the case may be).

Mosley wasn’t attempting to mock youth sports as a whole; he was forcing us to reflect, which is exactly what good philosophy does.

Educators are known for addressing a similar question: each week children spend 20 hours on their respective sport, yet only 5 hours doing math—is that really in their best interests? We wouldn’t support kids spending 20 hours playing Monopoly each week, or climbing into small holes, so why do the adults in charge support such seemingly similar activities?

An answer involving sports’ external rewards—college admission and money being the most prominent—cannot be the answer, as alluring as it may be. These riches seem abundant, but this is mostly due to the human bias toward availability: we hear of all the athletes who do make it to the college playing field and the pros, but not of the many (many) more who do not.

Fewer than 4% of high school athletes play their sport at the Division I or II level and only 1% earn scholarship money. Even then, the average scholarship is less than the money spent on the athlete’s journey to earn such a scholarship. And along this journey to the college level, the institution of youth coaching itself is relatively ungoverned with few if any credentialed programs available; schools require very little training to “qualify” as an educator in this arena, much unlike a teacher of any other subject who spends considerably less time with a student. For this reason, youth sports are rife with the possibility to harm children psychologically and developmentally. Additionally, each year 3.5 million children under the age of 15 receive medical care for sports-related injuries.

In short, millions of children spend countless hours pursuing their version of climbing into small holes, and only a very select few earn some tangible reward at the end of it all. With time being an increasingly sparse resource, these hours come at the expense of other areas—reading, writing, arithmetic, science, etc.—which many argue better prepare a child for the “real world,” where their skill set of throwing a ball into a circle will not be so pragmatic nor valued.

As such, educators and sport enthusiasts have some real work to do. The adults in charge have a moral obligation to create a balance and an experience in which children all achieve intrinsic rewards, many of which are unique to sport that is well-coached. Sports must mean more, otherwise we’re just climbing into small holes.

This work is currently being done. Just last week, the Institute of Sports Law and Ethics (ISLE) hosted the fourth annual “ETHOS Award” Dinner, which honors a program that has “contributed to the ethics of sport and its positive role in American society.” By way of introduction, the emcee introduced the award’s inaugural recipient, Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA). Since 1998, PCA has pursued a mission focused on promoting not just better athletes but, more importantly, better people. Their training invites coaches to pursue both athletic achievement as well as, “the more important goal of teaching life lessons through sports.”

Anyone familiar with sport’s rich history understands that our familiarity and connection with sport allows much of our ethical discourse to occur. We talk about gender discrimination and Title IX, drug testing, racial issues, fairness, and much more through the lens of sport, not only helping us to better understand these issues, but also as a way to recognize sport often takes the lead on such issues. ISLE’s mission includes a commitment to “fostering competence, conscience and compassion” in the field of sports—and, clearly, these values transcend the playing field.

During his final week in the White House, President Barack Obama reflected on just this theme as he hosted the Chicago Cubs to honor their recent World Series title:

“Throughout our history, sports has had this power to bring us together, even when the country’s divided. Sports has changed attitudes and culture in ways that seem subtle but ultimately made us think differently about ourselves and who we were. It is a game, and a celebration, but there’s a direct line between Jackie Robinson and me standing here.”

The high school where I teach has recognized a slight imbalance of focus on sports and is in the process of taking measures to mitigate this. Just this semester, measures have been introduced which are relatively unheard of at most nationally ranked athletic programs: teams take 3 extra days off per month during season (not including the league-mandated Sundays off), end practices 30 minutes early after the first month of training, compete in no more than two games per week whenever possible, and provide time away from training for students to meet with teachers on days following a missed class due to their sport.

There’s no doubt sports provide a unique opportunity for youth to experience some of life’s most profound riches—this has been studied and explored in exceptional detail. The virtues of sport are truly worth celebrating. We just need to make sure those in charge of this endeavor don’t let the negatives become too entrenched in the process. And, in doing so, we make sure children experience more than just climbing into small holes, whether they’re earning scholarship money or not—all the while, of course, having fun.


Jack graduated from Stanford with Honors in Human Biology and earned a masters in philosophy with an emphasis in Sport Ethics graduating summa cum laude from California State University, Long Beach. He has published four books, including “If You Can Read This: The Philosophy of Bumper Stickers” (Random House, 2010), a philosophical novel, “The Dream Weaver” (Penguin, 2008) and a college-level philosophy textbook.  His most recent book, Ethics and Leadership in Sport, comes out in July, 2017. While at Stanford Jack was a 2-time water polo All-American and NCAA MVP and was the alternate goalie on the 2006 Olympic Team. He has coached water polo at Menlo School for the past 17 years, winning the league championship 15 years and the section championship 5 times. In 2011 he was named by the Positive Coaching Alliance as a National Award Winner and now serves as the chair of the National Coaches Council for PCA. He teaches philosophy at Menlo School and serves as their College Athletics Councilor.

2 Responses

  1. Michael Ennis

    Once again Jack an amazing perspective and “check” on what we are doing with youth sports, and what we should be doing. I will definitely share this with many friends.
    Great timing too. Released the day before National Letter of Intent signing day.

    1. Jack Bowen

      Thank you, Michael. “Perspective,” indeed! Appreciate the comment. And, I wish I could say I planned the timing as per your comment but always good for athletes, or anyone really, to check their motivations before signing up for 4 years of any enterprise!

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