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Fear of missing out is hurting youth sports
The professional sport model has been creeping into the youth sport ranks for many years. It's almost to the point where nostalgic youth sport memes are all that is left of what older coaches and parents remember from their days as young athletes. We still have movies depicting idyllic summers of sandlot baseball, gritty youngsters 'stepping up' to overcome numerous non-sport challenges, and stories where sport is used as a metaphor to shape and later solve any number of social dilemmas.
But youth sport isn't like this, at least not anymore. The fear of missing out (yes, it really is a thing) has given rise to an increasing urgency for training, specialization, commitment, equipment, and travel. And the ages where this all starts are getting lower and lower.
In swimming, for example, practices now blanket the entire week. Double workouts on most days, coaches demanding 'commitments' from athletes, and parents fretting over the type of suit their child will wear in the next meet and wondering if they can afford it. On top of it all is the ever-present hope -- indeed the driver of the entire process -- of landing one of the dwindling number of college athletic scholarships.
The entire landscape of youth sport is changing. Families with children involved in sport now have a lifestyle different from families who don't, and the commitment coaches expect from athletes extends to the entire family. Vacations are changed, postponed, or simply canceled due to sport schedules.
Legislation outlawing any kind of sport activity in August might seem silly but it would probably be widely supported. But sport is self-selecting and parents and athletes who want a more normal lifestyle are deciding that the commitments are not for them. They're either not participating at all, choosing just how deeply they want to be involved, or picking other sports.
Most probably feel that they are out of sync with youth sport culture and don't realize that many others feel just as overwhelmed as they do.
Coaches and sport administrators are at the front of the train when it comes to recognizing threats to the good of the sport. Although getting consensus that something may be harmful in the long-run takes a long time to build. The four-hour rule and the recent tech suit ban in swimming are both examples of the sport's response to changing social expectations.
The four-hour rule has met with largely successful implementation but its main focus -- shortening meets and making them more attractive to families of younger athletes -- is being undermined by meets with numerous sessions, prelims/final formats, and holiday competitions.
Nobody gets a day off, ever.
The tech suit ban is new so only time will tell if it will effectively lower the participation costs of the sport. Families not spending $500 on a state-of-the-art swimsuit are now able to spend it on a 4-day, prelim-final meet over Martin Luther King weekend.
Prelim/finals out of control?
Nobody really talks about youth sport professionalization as stemming from a simple fear of missing out but I think that's exactly where it comes from. Prelim/final formats, for instance, used to be reserved largely for senior level championships. Gradually they started showing up in age group championships. Now they show up randomly for all age groups throughout the year usually offered by clubs that believe their meets are gems in a sea of otherwise mundane competitions.
I've been there when a 'C' final was added to a sectional meet then, later, a 'D' final. Almost no swimmer is eliminated during the prelim heats and given the pomp surrounding awards and showmanship in the finals the finals session now lasts longer than the prelims. What started out as an elite level competition designed to offer the best conditions for end-of-season or national qualifying performances has morphed into a four- or in some cases five-day enduro.
If someone dares to mention that there are too many finalists they are shamed into silence by the response that, 'We're trying to get these kids championship meet experience.'
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the kids in the 'D' final don't want to be there. The intention is good but the implementation is misguided.
Same but less training philosophy
Fear of missing out is also what drives adult or senior level practices into lower and lower levels of the sport. Morning workouts, strength training, goal sessions, and nutrition planning for children are appearing in clubs all over the United States. Let be frank: Any coach who believes he controls what a 12-year-old eats is taking himself too seriously.
A youngster's participation is routinely referred to as his swimming career. And, using the lazy, inappropriate but ever popular same but less training philosophy, youngsters engage in the same kind of training as their senior level counterparts just less of it. Some coaches go so far as to claim that visiting relatives over the Christmas holiday will ruin a swimming career or maybe a meet that's still two months away.
Swimming has a tendency to go overboard and reeling in the excesses takes time. The four-hour rule and the tech suit ban weren't hatched overnight. The good thing about swimming though is that it does change and will eventually react to social conditions. Right now unfortunately the fear of missing out is part of what is shaping the youth sport environment and things are likely to get worse before they get better.
Bill Price (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the owner and Chief Data Scientist at Sportkid Metrics.