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Win or Die

By Brett Klika

A Eulogy for Play in America Youth Sports Culture

Winning. The cornerstone of athletic culture. In athletics, you strive to improve your skills as an individual and team so when you meet up with the opposition, your skills and abilities are superior to theirs. This notion of winning in competition transcends sport in many competitive western cultures. Sports can be a powerful tool to teach youngsters about winning, losing, discipline, commitment, and competition, all attributes that can be applied to many aspects of one’s life. At what point in a youngster’s athletic career, however, should “winning” be introduced as primary criteria for success in sports? Does Vince Lombardi’s quote, “Winning isn’t everything, its’ the only thing” apply to the 7 year olds we usher into “competitive” soccer leagues? The 6-year olds participating in international golf tournaments?

America is developing a youth athletic culture that foregoes skill development in favor of a “might makes right” approach by putting too large an emphasis on winning at too young an age. If you doubt the validity of this statement, look at the majority of our professional athletes in nearly every sport in America. These athletes represent the most elite in their given sport. Most of them are foreign born and developed, coming here to cash in. In international sports, the only sport we maintain a stronghold on is American Football. This is from a country that has more youth sports participants than any other country in the world and a heterogeneous DNA that should produce superior athletic specimens. Our youth athletic development system is broken due to our blind, near fruitless ambitions to create champions out of our youngsters.

This is probably the part where your eyes roll in assumption that I’m one of these “don’t play dodge ball because someone’s feelings might get hurt” people that gives trophies out to youngsters like orange slices. I can assure you, I am quite the opposite. The PROBLEM is that kids don’t play dodge ball anymore. The PROBLEM is that we try to create a “winner” even when there isn’t one! I aim to create an athletic force that is MORE competitive on the international front. In order to do this however, we have to let the kids PLAY!!! Our overzealous attempts to organize and create criteria-based competition too early in a youngster’s athletic career is not supported by any research, theories of childhood development, or empirical scenarios from anywhere in the world. It’s based on delusions of grandeur, the college scholarship carrot-on-a-stick, and our blind, ethnocentric American sports culture. I agree if you are a parent in America, you have very little choice than to buy into what we have created. If your child doesn’t start competing very young, they may miss opportunities as they age. What is competition, however, in the pre-pubescent American sports world? Anyone familiar with this institution knows that the “best” athlete on the field nearly always is the most physically mature. They are further along in the growth curve than the others, therefore, are faster and stronger. Notice I made no mention of actual skill execution. These athletes are considered the “good” athletes and are rewarded with better playing opportunities on better teams, with better coaches. Coaches know their job depends on their ability to create winning teams and these winning teams are created by recruiting as many hyper matured kids as possible. Notice I still haven’t mentioned anything about actual skill development. In competitive youth athletics, the best basketball team has the tallest player, the best soccer team has the fastest player, and the best baseball team has the pitcher with ZZ Top inspired facial hair at age 12. Doesn’t the notion of “winning” suggest that the team with the superior tactical abilities, i.e. skill, should emerge victorious? Isn’t that the entire “point” of athletic competition? Are these “winners” actually mastering the sport, or just a Darwinian race for physical dominance?

In other countries, youth are often institutionalized for athletics at a young age. We scoff at this notion in the Free World because we would never want to infringe on a youngsters care-free childhood. Let me ask you this. When was the last time you saw a group of youngsters playing a “care-free” game of sandlot baseball? Backyard soccer? Chasing a Frisbee? Can’t recall? It’s because the notion of “care-free” athletic play is nearly extinct in our youth. I have researched the Canadian, Polish, and former Soviet Union institutionalized youth development programs. While these countries may institutionalize their youth (which I am not in support of), they don’t let them compete in organized competition often until they are 14 or 15. Prior to this, youngsters are assessed and they do play games, but competition serves as a showcase for acquired skill. Skill execution is the primary criteria for success. This creates an environment in which every youth, regardless of where they are on the maturation curve, must strive to develop advanced game-related skill. Early maturing youth aren’t just viewed as successful by “bowling over” the less mature athletes. Combining advanced physical capability with high level tactical skill is what creates champions when it counts. More importantly, these countries address the importance of “play”. Unstructured games in which the youth are able to experiment with newly acquired skills without worrying about achieving monitored criteria. Play helps youngsters develop a “6th sense” in regards to game tactics. Child development researchers coin “play” as the most influential factor in creating athletically related motor capabilities. We are slowly squeezing play out of our developmental programs for youth.

Our “gladiator” approach to developing athletes is acknowledged around the world. Anyone who is familiar with international competition knows America’s reputation for producing raw athleticism and limited skill. Game tactics are often secondary to speed and strength. The more refined the skill required for the sport, the more difficulty we have in producing international champions. Look at the sport that America dominates, American Football. While specific game tactics such as position assignments require refined skill sets, raw athleticism is one of the most significant factors in creating high level football players. Consider a sport like soccer however that requires a high level of tactical skill. We are an international non-factor.

So what now? As a parent, you and your child are already indoctrinated into the system. It’s the system America has chosen, and we have to live by it to a degree. My suggestion is simple, patience. Be patient with your young athlete. While the institution is hell-bent on “right now” it doesn’t mean you have to be. Be smarter than that. Educate others. Research has shown no correlation between the best athlete on a team at age 12 and at age 18. Anyone experienced in working with youth knows that most pre-pubescent superstars burn out by the end of high school and often drop out of sports all together. Focus first and foremost on your child’s overall skill development. Stay consistent. Make sure they enjoy what they are doing. Make sure they goof around and play. You can actually exploit our broken system’s weakness by employing this patience and long-term consistency. Seek educated, knowledgeable, INTELLIGENT professionals that are above this broken system as a resource. How do you know if a professional is “above the system”? Test them by telling them you want sport specific training for your 10 year old. If they do anything besides educate you on the importance of overall development, run the other way! Let the others get injured and burned out. Empower your child to be a champion when it counts.

Coach Brett Klika is the Director of Athletic Performance at Todd Durkin’s Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego, CA. He specializes in youth fitness and athletic performance, overseeing a staff of 8 strength coaches developing programs for over 300 youth per week, both athletes and non-athletes. He presents around the world to both trainers and corporations with Todd Durkin Enterprises on a variety of health, wellness, and athletic performance topics. Brett contributes monthly to the award-winning “TD Times” newsletter. If you would like to sign up, you can do so by visiting, or use the contact form below: [easy-contact]

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