Winning the Race to the Right Finish Line in Youth Sports
Kevin McLaughlin, USA Hockey’s Director of Youth Hockey Development, was not looking forward to opening his email in January 2009. He knew it was going to be full of angry posts. He knew he and his colleagues at USA Hockey would be accused of destroying the game and taking the toughness out of the sport. He knew that the haters would be out in full force, trying to run the leaders of USA Hockey’s youth development team out the door.
But, USA Hockey’s leadership also knew they were in the right. They knew that in order to survive, grow, and improve, youth hockey needed to change. They needed kids to play cross-ice hockey in order to get more touches, interactions, and enjoyment out of every game.
They knew that body checking was not a necessary component of 10-year-old hockey, as growing children were more susceptible to injury and less likely to develop skillfully if the game was overly physical.
They knew that there was no need for a 12 and Under national champion to be crowned, as this title served the egos of the adults watching far more than the needs of the children playing.
They knew they needed a new model. Youth sports was on a race to the bottom, and hockey was about to pull out of that race.
They knew they needed to win the race to the right finish line.
The new finish line was focused on enjoyment, development, and increased participation. It worried less about childhood achievement and more about developing lifelong hockey players. They knew that more players, who were technically proficient, would allow the cream to rise to the top, instead of the current model in many sports where we throw a bunch of eggs against a wall and hope one doesn’t break.
Implementing the best research available, USA Hockey introduced the Athlete Development Model (ADM) in 2009, and today the sport is thriving. In an era when most major youth sports are losing numbers rapidly – since 2010, baseball participation is down 5%, basketball is down 8%, and soccer is down a whopping 23.5% – hockey is growing, setting participant numbers records again in 2016-2017, and now running programs in all 50 states.
If you are wondering whether this made US Hockey less competitive, here are the stats from 2017. There were four world championship events held, and USA Hockey won all four: Women’s World Championship, U20 men, U18 Men, and U18 Women.
Over the past year, I have had the honor of presenting alongside both USA Hockey ADM Technical Director Ken Martel and Kevin Mclaughlin as they have shared their success story to date, and they both told me how their mantra all these years was “let’s win the race to the right finish line.” USA Hockey’s ADM stands out as a model for other sporting organizations trying to fight the decline in youth sports participation numbers, caused in a large part by sports models designed to serve the needs, values and priorities of adults, and not of the children who are participating. As this great video by USA Hockey demonstrates, if we asked adults to play under the same conditions as the kids, the game is not much fun:
Every national governing body in US sports today is developing their own version of the ADM. They are using science, research, and best principles from across the globe to re-engage kids in sports. It can’t happen soon enough!
Every week, we hear horror stories about this race to the bottom in youth sports. We get emails about 8-year -soccer players being asked to sign contracts stating that they will not play another sport during the year. We hear about 10-year-olds who travel long distances to “important tournaments” and then don’t get any playing time. We even got an email about a 9-year-old football player whose coach would not even put him in at PRACTICE! When the dad asked the coach why his son didn’t play, the response from the coach was “he doesn’t know the plays!” Seriously coach?
It is time for the sensible people to take back youth sports, and give it to the kids. It’s time to stop focusing on the mad rush to crown the youngest national champion, or rank elementary school kids as the “best 8-year-old baseball team in the US”. It’s time for the adult agenda to take a back seat to the needs of the kids.
If you are a parent who truly cares about your child’s long-term health and well-being, or if you are a coach with the needs of your athletes in mind, I hope you will join us in saying “It’s time to start winning the race to the right finish line.” How do we do this?
Focus on early engagement, not specialization: Help your kids fall in love with their chosen sport/sports, and let them own the experience. Engagement is about the love of activity, self-motivated participation, and looking at the short-term (I love what I am doing) vs the long-term (back to the grind). Sampling different sports early on promotes engagement and increases the likelihood of lifelong participation in sports, while decreasing burnout and non-participation rates. Kids, even pros, need to “play sports,” not work them.
Take the long view and win the marathon, not the sprint: Outside of female gymnastics and figure skating, where athletes peak in their early to mid-teens, in most sports athletes peak in their 20s. There are many unique pathways to the top, but pouring a twenty-year-old’s amount of training hours into an 11-year-old will likely guarantee short-term success, but sets up many roadblocks for the long-term. If you have a late bloomer, help keep them in the development pathway and foster love of sport, and watch them learn grit and resilience as they compete against bigger, stronger, faster kids. When they catch up physically, watch out!
Focus on behaviors, not outcomes: Early success in sport is often a result of being bigger, faster and stronger – or older according to the relative age effect – and not a great predictor of long-term performance. What is a good predictor of excellence in the teenage years and beyond, however, are great behaviors and habits. Is your athlete coachable? Are they a hard worker? Are they committed? Do they listen? Are they accountable? Coaches and parents must realize, as Mark Bennett said on our podcast, that performance is a behavior, not an outcome. Our job as parents is to help our young athletes form great habits first, and then eventually outcomes start to take care of themselves.
Develop the entire person, not just the athlete: Sports skills become life skills. No matter how good your kids are at sports, even if they are one of the .01% who turn professional, they will still have two-thirds of their life where the life skills matter much more than their sports skills. Sports are a great venue for developing life skills such as working with others, embracing the process, dealing with adversity, and so much more. Be sure that your sporting experience is teaching those things, instead of compromising them to win this weekend.
USA Hockey may be a leader in this category, but other sports are following. US Lacrosse is growing by putting kids first. Clubs, park districts and schools across the country are working with organizations such as the Changing the Game Project, the Positive Coaching Alliance, and Proactive Coaching to create values-based programming that focus on winning the race to the right finish line. Here is one such organization.
In 2015, Nate Baldwin became the Youth Sports Programmer for Appleton, WI Parks and Recreation. They faced declining numbers across their four major sports – flag football, soccer, baseball/softball, and basketball – just like many other sports organizations. In Baldwin’s words, “the first thing that struck me was how willing a “typical” park & rec sports program was to be the “fall back” option in the community. We were willing to be the program families settled for, if their children either weren’t talented enough, or financially fortunate enough, to participate with an elite/travel program (as with many communities, the travel/elite system is big, vocal, and strong in this part of the state). I was already a firm believer in the message of Changing the Game Project at that point, so my first order of business was to basically stand up for the benefits we provide to the community…. Define our values, define our philosophy, and boldly position those qualities as the reason to ACTIVELY CHOOSE our program over the competition.”
So what has happened in Appleton since 2015? First, they defined who they were and what they stood for, by outlining four core values:
- Inclusivity: regardless of your skill or background, there is a place for you here
- Intentional Skill Development: accomplished through structured lesson planning, coach training, and frequent feedback during the season to help coaches and players get from point A to point B, from week to week, and from season to season.
- Family Balance: Reasonable time commitments that allow kids to be kids (and enjoy family dinners, get their homework done, and enjoy free play), reasonable financial commitments that don’t artificially increase pressure or expectations, and a season length that allows a child to pursue other interests and other sports without guilt.
- Promoting Lifelong Enjoyment of Sports: we want the league experience to be so positive, so encouraging, that every child will want to make this activity a part of their life, long-term…. regardless of whether they pursue the activity competitively or not
Next, Nate and his team relentlessly shared these values, educated coaches and parents, and held people accountable for upholding them. They said in essence “we told you how we do things here, if this is not a good fit we understand, perhaps it’s not for you.”
Since 2015, participation numbers in their four major sports are up a staggering 47%, from 1642 kids to 2419! It turns out that this type of programming was exactly what people were looking for. “It shows that kids still want to play, and it shows that families still value a positive sports experience, dictated by core values that make sense, match their family values, and promote the overall health, well-being and development of their children,” says Baldwin. “Being an active part of your movement has helped us reach these families with this message, and they have embraced it wholeheartedly with their participation, and their enthusiasm to share it with their friends, family and neighbors.”
The best part, I think, is this last paragraph from Nate’s email to me: “A critical component of our success has been our ability to deliver on the experience we promote. Despite the incredible growth our programs have enjoyed, our on-field conflict and problems are practically non-existent. Parents, coaches, and staff ALL understand the value system, understand what our collective purpose is on the field each week, and are unified and collaborative in their efforts to provide that experience for our kids each week. They are also extremely PROTECTIVE of that mission because they know how important the integrity of that mission is to our program success.”
Your town, your club, your sport can be the next Appleton, WI. You can be the next USA Hockey. It just takes belief in the science, a long-term vision, a healthy dose of courage to go from good to great, and relentless commitment to serving the needs, values, and priorities of the kids.
It takes a small group of people to stand up and decide to win the race to the right finish line.
I hope you will join our movement! If you don’t know how to get started, send us an email at John@ChangingTheGameProject.com. We can help.