A Radical Idea – Letting Kids Play Sports for FUN!

Youth Soccer News: Over the years youth sports has changed from something kids did for fun to a means to achieve a goal. Whether it is to gain a college scholarship or to make an elite team, Vincent J. Stanley is working to bring the FUN back to youth sports. Stanley says, “Kids need to be kids and play for fun.”

Vincent J. (VJStanley is a long-time coach in multiple sports and the founder and president of Frozen Shorts, which encourages children to play sports for fun. Stanley has written a book, Stop the Tsunami in Youth Sports: Achieving Balanced Excellence and Health While Embracing the Value of Play for Fun, which is a guide for families, coaches and players to encourage the idea of playing youth sports for fun. The book is available as an E-book and will come out in October 2012 as a CD andMP3 file. A paperback version is due in late 2012.

Stanley sees the current focus on year-round play in a single sport as both detrimental and hazardous to young athletes.

The majority of children playing youth sports at age 10 quit by age 13, and overuse injuries among young athletes are on the rise. According to Stanley, both of these trends could be reversed by allowing children to play multiple sports and to play for fun, rather than to reach some elite level. Earlier this year Stanley was interviewed on Rochester, N.Y., station WHAM about his philosophy of play for fun.

GoalNation interviewed Stanley to get his thoughts on the importance of allowing children to play sport for fun and how that could change the face of youth athletics.

Diane Scavuzzo: In today’s highly competitive youth soccer environment, are parents and some coaches pushing their kids too hard?

VJ Stanley: The simple answer is yes. However, there is much more to that question than just a simple answer. The question to the question is why. Why are parents and coaches putting so much pressure on children at younger and younger ages to be very competitive and win?

The next question to those two questions is, do they have the facts to know whether this is even healthy for their children and players, both mentally and physically? Then they need to get to the question of if there is a long-term benefit to them by being so competitive, and the mantra that more is better. Now we have a fundamental base from which to continue, to be able to answer the question fully.

Let me start with the premise that just about anything that a child does pre-puberty will not have a long-term net gain on a child’s athletic success. Puberty changes everything.

Our data and research on a national level show that about 10% of the children who are better than the rest of the other athletes at pre-puberty ages maintain and grow to be the best athletes when they are 17 or 18. Burnout, injuries, and other interests are mitigating factors to this phenomenon. Besides, children change their minds all the time. Isn’t it better to give them a fundamental base applicable to all areas of life rather than a sports-specific, myopic one?

Since the male and female bodies don’t fully develop until the children are into their early 20s, around 23, 24, and 25 years of age, it becomes disingenuous to the process to try and make these children into something they are not capable of being at an early age and won’t be when they get older. Would you teach a 10 year old Physics?

Seventy percent of all children playing youth sports at the age of 10, which is the #1 age for participation in the country, quit by the time they are 13. People like to say they have other interests, but the data say there are three main reasons:

  1. They are not having fun
  2. Too much pressure from coaches and parents to win
  3. Lack of playing time.

Now, you couple this data with the facts that only about 1% of all children that go to a four-year school play at the Division I level and that the average Division I scholarship, excluding Football and Basketball, is $8,700 a year, and you have a cauldron brewing where irrational thought and behavior will eventually boil over to justify the commitment to winning. The data do not support the time, money, and end-of-the-rainbow wishful thinking results.

Diane Scavuzzo: Do you believe that kids should only play one sport? Do youth soccer players have to be that dedicated to playing youth soccer?

VJ Stanley: I do not believe that children should play one sport. Data have shown that children that play one sport year round are more likely to have injuries, burn out and not continue to play their sport at the Division I level.

Balance is so important to the human body and brain that they have an Olympic event named after it: the Balance Beam. We call it Balanced Excellence at Frozen Shorts and stress it in our book and presentations.

An expression “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” applies to sports as well as life. More and more college coaches are looking to recruit athletes that play more than one sport because they are easier to coach. These athletes do not have a false sense of their ability and understand being a great teammate is as important as talent.

VJ Stanley, founder and president of Frozen Shorts, is a strong advocate for allowing children to play sports for fun.

Diane Scavuzzo: Do you believe that rest is important? Why? What do you mean by rest?

VJ Stanley: Rest is crucial to an athlete’s development. Here is how important rest is: the United States Olympic Committee has changed the configuration of their dorm rooms. They have changed the curtains to a much darker color, they have changed the music that is played and they have changed the mattresses to pillow tops mattresses. Their findings show data that say when their athletes sleep more than eight hours their bodies release a natural form of HGH and that they have data to support increased performance. They actually have their athletes comparing sleep data and corresponding performance.

One of the new terms floating around is active rest. We simply say, go play something else – not your chosen sport – for fun. Get together with friends and play pickup games. PLAY FOR FUN!

I ask you, don’t you perform better at work, and don’t you get along better with your co-workers after a good night’s rest?

Diane Scavuzzo: What is the biggest challenge in youth soccer today?

VJ Stanley: The biggest problem facing youth soccer and youth sports in general is the amount of children quitting. With obesity increasing four-fold over the last decade or two, and about 30% of all the children born after the year 2000 headed for Type 2 diabetes, I believe that we need to have our children, and more of them, convinced to lead a more active lifestyle.

They need to have fun and enjoy youth sports while they are young so they will continue to want to be active as adults. You want to know what the #1 growing adult sport is in the country? WHIFFLE BALL! Gaining on whiffle ball is kick ball and pickle ball. WHY? Because they are fun!

Diane Scavuzzo: How do you suggest we avoid burnout in our youth players?

VJ Stanley: Read my book, Stop the Tsunami in Youth Sports. We are trying convince people that health and having fun through Balanced Excellence is the most important indicator for your child’s long-term well being and athletic development. This philosophy and paradigm is supported by doctors, athletic trainers, coaches, and Division I and professional athletes who have already gone through or are going through the journey.

The mental and physical health of this generation of children is at risk and burnout is a large part of the problem, not just in youth sports, but many activities that our children engage in.

After you read the book or attend one of our seminars, gather as many facts and ask as many questions as possible, then make an informed choice and decision about your level of commitment in all areas. Be it time, money, or even whether you play or not, make decisions, which can change, based on the facts as they are, not the fantasy that is so subjective and myopic.

You may think having your child get more playing time at a young age is going to help give them a competitive advantage, but really is it? And at what cost? It really is just another form of entitlement cloaked in the “more is better” mantra. I have heard parents say, “But my child loves to play their sport; they want to play it year round.”

Well, I love ice cream, but it’s not healthy to eat it every day.

All you are really doing at a young age is giving a child a head start in a race that probably does not exist. And that head start gives the child and parents the belief that they are good, and are entitled, and will get a scholarship; the facts simply do not support that idea at all.

Diane Scavuzzo: So, rather than playing year around to reach some goal, what is your advice?

VJ Stanley: PLAY FOR FUN. I had one person tell me, after listening to one of my presentations, that she thought children could have too much fun. Oh, I truly hope that becomes a problem! After we were done talking she came away with a different point of view. Intrinsic change and growth, not external pressure is a key component for avoiding burnout. What if I told you your child could be better at their chosen sport by not playing it all the time? Well, it’s true. There is a natural law of diminishing returns here that applies.

Eighty-five percent of all people who lose their jobs, not counting massive layoffs, lose their jobs because they don’t get along with fellow workers. So the life lessons we should be teaching our children should be 85% getting along as teammates and only 15% about competing for victories. We are trying to force feed our children concepts they cannot understand, and shouldn’t have to, at way too early an age, and they internally resist it as it goes against their nature.

VJ Stanley poses with his son on the rink after a hockey game.

Diane Scavuzzo: For the elite players, what recommendations do you have?

VJ Stanley: I would first ask the question, what is your definition of an elite athlete? I would then ask who is telling this athlete that they are elite. About 80% of a college coach’s time is spent on recruiting. College coaches have access to many different ways to find and evaluate elite athletes. They have assistants who go out and watch athletes play every day.

The pool of athletes for a Division I scholarship is truly global now. So you may think you are an elite athlete when in fact you are only a big fish in a small pond.

There are a limited number of scholarships available athletically. There are 77 times MORE non-athletic scholarships than athletic ones and very few full athletic scholarships to college, so I would say emphatically, STUDY! Hit the books! It is very unlikely that any athlete cannot be found if they have talent.

Now, if a Division I coach has told you that you can play at that level, and not your youth coach, any relative, a “wanna be” scout or a scouting service, my advice for you would be to keep your grades up, get plenty of rest, make sure you are having fun playing your sport, and to balance your athletics with academics.

Don’t get caught up in the hype of having to play on this one specific team. Find a team that encourages a positive attitude, modeled by the head coach, with humility, accountability and sportsmanship. If you combine talent with that paradigm, a college coach will find you. In the very odd chance that you are not found and have talent, there is a thing called “walk-ons” in college sports, and you can try out when you show up to the college of your choice.

Diane Scavuzzo: Do you believe that some injuries could be prevented or the risks minimized?

VJ Stanley: I believe that at least 50% of all youth sports injuries can be prevented. Last year, 3.5 million children went to the hospital for overuse injuries. Dr. James Andrews performed 50 “Tommy John” surgeries (ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction) in 2000, while last year he did 251.

We have been working with doctors and Certified Athletic Trainers collecting data on how rest, proper nutrition, and balanced excellence are the key to health and injury avoidance. People like to say that youth sports and the ensuing injuries are a social phenomena; I say they are a man-made disease.

Diane Scavuzzo: The philosophy of more training is better is pervasive in America. Your advice is different. Why? 

VJ Stanley: In preparation for a writing test I ask you to do the following:  Write your name and address 100 times, and then 100 more times, in preparation for the final exam of writing your name and address. Do you really think that you will be that much better than the person I had do the same exercise only 20 times, and then took them out for ice cream to relax before they took the final writing test? Your wrist would probably hurt, and so would your elbow and shoulder, and you would not be very happy with me.

At the end of a long work day that includes lots of stress, do you perform your tasks as well as when you were fresh? If you can’t, why do you think our children can?

Diane Scavuzzo: How long have you been coaching, and what sports have you coached?

VJ Stanley: I am the youngest coach in the history of High School Hockey in Monroe County. I was a Head coach in college hockey for 21 years. I have coached baseball all the way from T-ball up to U-19 travel. I have also coached soccer, football, and basketball.

Diane Scavuzzo: What sports did you play growing up, and did you ever feel burnt out from a sport?

VJ Stanley: I played just about every sport around growing up. I played Varsity High School hockey, soccer, and baseball (I did not play any of those sports at any level other than the Varsity level.) At the J.V. and freshmen level I played tennis, track, and football. I played one game at Clarkson College before two concussions in one week, my seventh and eighth, ended my career. I never felt burnt out. We played outside all day and played multiple sports. I really looked forward to the next sport when the seasons changed.

Diane Scavuzzo: What, if anything, do you wish you could done differently as an athlete?

VJ Stanley: The only two things I wish I could have done differently is gotten better grades, and I wish that I would have gotten out of the way of the last two hits that knocked me silly and ended my career.

Diane Scavuzzo: What bothers you most about youth sports?

VJ Stanley: Yelling at the kids when they are playing. I went to a youth sports soccer game of 5 and 6 year olds. It was 32 minutes long. I brought a stop watch and timed the amount of play the children actually got. It was 11 minutes and 37 seconds. In the first half alone the coaches yelled 27 instructions to these little kids. Would you like to have someone at work yell 27 instructions to you in a 16 minute part of your work day? Then why should we do it to the kids?

Diane Scavuzzo: What do you think about the amount of time kids actually play during a game?

VJ Stanley: I believe in equal play for all kids up through the age of 12. I have watched over 1000 youth sports games and practices, and I can tell you that minimum playing time does not work in most cases. No one is qualified to determine at that age someone is going to be an elite athlete. After age 12 it should be play by performance, no entitlement, no exceptions. A good friend of mine said that we keep trying to microwave our kid’s athletic developments when we should be slow cooking it.

Diane Scavuzzo: Do you have any last thoughts to share?

VJ Stanley: Your child is not the chosen one. Love him/her and support them in a positive way that empowers them to find their own path, whatever that may be, but not to your dream of glory and riches.

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