Did you know that traditional competitive sports don't provide children with the opportunities necessary to acquire, practice, and refine their motor skills -- or even the skills required by the sports themselves?
Consider the following results of a variety of studies, reported by Steve Grineski in his book, Cooperative Learning in Physical Education:
- 75% of ball contacts were made by 40% of the players during a 3rd-grade soccer game.
- 35% of players never caught the ball, while 52% of players never threw the ball during a 5th-grade kickball game.
- Three students never touched the ball or ran the length of the gym floor during a 5th-grade kickball game.
- Twenty 3rd-grade children participating in a one-hour softball game had a total of 39 throwing and catching opportunities. The average number of throwing and catching opportunities for each child for the one-hour game was 2.3.
- Children participating in an hour-long hockey game had possession of the puck less than two minutes each.
In other words, the children involved in these situations had very few opportunities to improve their throwing, catching, kicking, dribbling, or stick-handling skills. And these were elementary-school children! Younger children forced to play adult games without adult skills find they don't even know what they're expected to do when finally given an opportunity to perform.
But you don't need the results of studies to know this is true. If you've ever been to any organized contests involving young children, you've probably witnessed it yourself. There's the right fielder who grows so bored waiting for a ball to come her way that, by the time one finally does arrive, she's busy finding creatures in the clouds. Or the "wide receiver" who hasn't seen the football in so long he's forgotten what his job is and periodically just trots down the field and then back to the huddle. How, exactly, are these children supposed to be improving their skills?
In short, if traditional competitive sports programs don't provide children with the opportunities necessary to acquire, practice, and refine their motor skills, how likely is it that improved motor development will take place? And doesn't this also say something about the ability of organized sports programs to improve physical fitness? If organized sports turn out to be nearly as sedentary as sitting on the couch, fitness certainly can't be the expected result!
But perhaps the more important questions are: If a child experiences more failure than success in organized sports, what happens to the love of movement she started life with? How likely is she to make physical activity an integral part of her later life?
The theory of flow, put forth by University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, contends that people are happiest when the challenges they face are equal to the skills they possess. So what happens when the challenges presented to children are beyond their ability to succeed? Anxiety is one probable result. Another is the development of learned helplessness: the expectation, based on past experience, that one's every effort will lead to failure.
Motivation theorists have discovered that when failure is attributed to lack of ability and ability is considered beyond one's control, the cycle leads to embarrassment, withdrawal, and a decline in performance. And it makes perfect sense. What would your reaction have been if, as a child who hadn't yet "broken the code" of putting letters together to form words, someone insisted you read Shakespeare? What if, before you even knew how to add and subtract, your parents had urged you to try solving algebra problems? Chances are, you would have blamed yourself for your inabilities, concluded you would never master such tasks, and simply given up.
When we put children into situations for which they're not ready, we set them up for failure. And failure, of course, feels bad, which is the last thing we want for our kids. More significant, numerous studies have shown that negative early experiences with sports are a major factor in why kids quit participating in physical activity altogether. And then what happens to fitness and health? Hint: we end up breeding more couch potatoes.