Should the Olympic committee have a role in youth sport governance? You bet!They already do, but reform is needed and the USOPC may be the only way to get it done.
One of the evergreen topics for anyone interested in youth sports is how to reform the system so that it is more like the way youth and sport used to be in the good old days of sandlot baseball, foot races in the street, and long afternoons of endless physical activities. When we compare youth sport today to what many coaches and administrators experienced in their younger years we witness a shrinking landscape of opportunity, increasing costs, out of control competitive schedules, and a general dissatisfaction with the whole experience. But sandlot baseball is gone forever and the nostalgia we feel for our youth sport past isn't real, it's a quirk of memory and movies. It never really existed the way we like to think it did.
This past week I read an article about what needs to change with US soccer clubs. The author was examining the way competitions were conducted and noted that players did not get enough rest between matches. Tournaments often had to optimize expensive travel trips and schedule multiple games over a short period, sometimes multiple games on the same day. All of this was done so that the youth level competitions mimicked those at much higher levels of performance.
A day later I was scrolling through a Facebook swimming forum and noticed a post from a parent wondering whether it was worth it to travel several hundred miles and spend a few days in a hotel for a youngster to compete in a meet where he had only one qualification time. The parent was juggling costs against limited participation, so it's easy to conclude that she was looking for someone to validate her concern that it might not be worth it. Most of the commenters, however, focused on the sport culture aspects; advancing within the sport hierarchy, seizing or not passing up an opportunity to compete, etc. Few acknowledged that the actual cost of the opportunity was what the parent was asking about. When we get mired in the minutiae of our sport structure and reward framework we miss real world concerns, in this case the financial costs involved.
Excessive competitive expectations and increasing financial requirements are part of the dark side of youth sport. Excessive competition leads to lousy athlete experiences and for no other reason than to fill out competitive brackets that meet the adult idea of what a tournament should look like. Competitive structures, no matter how recreational in nature they are at first, all eventually take on the look and feel of high performance events. Athletes face increasingly pressurized competitions, longer travel times, and less recovery between games and events regardless of their age and ability level. And, as I wrote previously, increasing costs in youth sport is just another form of elimination. While practitioners may talk about how steadily increasing costs undermine the sport-for-all liberalities common to practically all youth sport programs, few see what they, their club, or even their sport can do about it.
Reforming the youth sport system often seems to be more important to those who are outside it. Perspectives vary of course but those directly involved with a sport rarely see their own critical issues as part of a larger system. The feeling is that problems within soccer, swimming, or volleyball, for example, are unique to the sports themselves rather than part of a bigger picture. Soccer leagues often combine long-distance travel with a compressed tournament bracket to fit as many games as possible into a 3-day weekend; and swimming has its almost never ending ladder of end-of-season, 3- to 4-day competitions. To an outsider these are examples of the same thing but it's unlikely that practitioners in each sport would see it that way.
But there really is a system; some call it a paradigm, hipsters call it the zeitgeist, hippies used to refer to it as the establishment. No matter what it's called it shapes how we do things not only in sport but in all kinds of social interactions. I noted previously that Norway's national sport governing bodies (NGBs) agree to an overarching practice that allows child-athletes to have a less pressurized sport experience while they are young and only begin ramping up the training, competition, and performance expectations as athletes get older. This kind of social agreement works in Norway because it's small and though immigration has been increasing it remains ethnically Norwegian. Dominant cultural expectations are widely accepted, so it's easier to convince sport practitioners of the value of common guidelines for sport participation. It also helps that the Norwegian Sports Confederation (NIF), an umbrella organization that includes all sports in Norway, also controls much of the funding for sport. Controlling the money gives the NIF more influence over NGBs than it would otherwise have.
Contrast what one might reasonably describe as centralized control in Norway with the way sport is structured in the United States and some cultural differences become apparent. The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) would be the NIF equivalent in the U.S. But unlike the NIF, the USOPC has not tried to enforce standard competition structures on NGBs. The funding provided to the various sport bodies is aimed primarily at high performance with money going to both NGBs and individual athletes ($111 million in 2020). Developmental funds ($34 million) were spent on athlete safety, opportunity, and representation. NGBs are on their own as far as low-level, technical development is concerned and this includes the competitive framework employed at the various age and ability levels.
If the USOPC wanted to address the cost to families of young athletes and improve the competitive experiences of youngsters then the obvious way is to make competing at a young age less attractive. That sounds bad but actually leads to a good result. For individual sports this is easy. In swimming, for example, the youngest athletes could be combined into a 12 years & under group for competition. Younger athletes (8-, 9-, and 10-year-olds) would still be allowed to compete but their age group would be 12 & under, thus they would have less motivation to compete until they were a little older and those who did compete would not be under unreasonable pressure to perform well because the would be racing the 'big kids'. National recognition times that are now kept for 10 & under athletes would be eliminated and the youngest group would be switched to 12 & under.
What would this accomplish? First, it would shift the importance of competition to an age when it is more appropriate while still allowing younger athletes who wanted to compete to do so. Second, it would reduce the cost of participation for the youngest athletes and new families to the sport by limiting competitive expectations and the travel and lodging expenses associated with it. It's a win, win.
In swimming and other CGS sports (those measured in centimeters, grams, and seconds) and target sports like archery or golf a competitive scheme like this would be technically easy to implement. Other sports such as combat and court activities would be a different matter, since allowing much younger athletes to compete against older athletes would invite injury. Team sports, as well, would need a different strategy but in all cases the basic idea -- reducing competition and pressure on the youngest athletes -- would be the goal.
Why technically easy? Because many things in sport have a certain inertia that makes change difficult. Age group competition that looks the same as that at the elite, collegiate, and international levels is common and expected. But it was implemented before anyone considered -- before anyone even knew -- that it might not be a very good idea to do it that way. So while changing the youngest competitive levels is easy to do conceptually there would be massive pushback from those who expect it as part of the way we've always done it. This is why the Norway model of instituting guidelines from the national Olympic committee might be the best way to shift youth sport in a better direction.
The USOPC already sets NGB funding contingent on administrative and athlete protection regimes. After reaching a reasonable consensus, policies governing youth sport competitive frameworks could also become part of the funding process.