- At age 9: “Okay, it’s time for y’all to come inside and clean-up for dinner.”
- At age 12: “I know y’all go to the park to play football after school, but I need you home by 5 to do homework and get ready for dinner.”
- At age 13: “I told you that you could go play ghosts in the graveyard at the park. Not that you could come home at 2am!”
- At age 14: “Where the hell have you been all day?”
My childhood, like yours, was a constant succession of games and competitions. Summers were littered with sports camps and free time was spent organizing friends to play other games.
When I got to high-school activities grew more focused and serious. I began training hard. The majority of sports play was reserved for practice and structured competition, although summers and off-seasons still featured a good bit of less formal play just for its own sake. By my senior year, I was as good an athlete as ever. The year was filled with competitive highlights and ego-trips. And then it was over.
Competition-minded adults have always finished high-school or college athletics only to find themselves in a no man’s land where the passion’s that dominated their life are now completely unavailable.
Team sport is reserved only for professionals. They are left to either coach or re-orient themselves into an individual sport like biking, running, Crossfit, or martial arts. While these are phenomenal pursuits they lack the social dependency that many adults desperately need.
A Better Model
Canada’s Sport for Life Initiative has created a brilliant, developmentally appropriate framework they call the Long Term Athletic Development (LTAD) model. Their mission was to create the most possible Canadian Olympians while also driving up the quality of the nation’s lifetime health. It turns out these goals are extremely compatible.
By contrast, American norms have drastically reduced the pool of talent as youth sports participation plummets every year in response to insane costs and obsessive cultures.
The Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program reports that “only 36.9 percent of children ages 6-12 played team sports on a regular basis in 2016 – down from 38.6 in 2015 and 44.5 in 2008.”
The excesses of youth sports are driving families away from these transformative childhood experiences and replacing them with screen time and passive entertainment. The few remaining are more subject to norms driven by extremists whose only mission in life is to guarantee their child a college scholarship. Despite fewer American youth athletes, overuse injuries have skyrocketed, a consequence of only ever playing structured sport and the overuse typical of premature specialization.
The LTAD model looks at developmental science to clarify age-appropriate sports attitudes. By clearly warning off early specialization and over-structure, they’ve fostered an atmosphere where youth play many sports, building a full, balanced athletic tool kit. While American youth are experiencing sport as parent-controlled, hyper-focused drudgery, Canadian youth sport has thrived as children learn the joys of team sport. Structure and physical training are added progressively at scientifically supported, age-appropriate intervals and doses.
Generally, the LTAD stages are as follows:
- Active Start: Up to age 6. Basic movement skills are prioritized. The youth gains a love for movement, learning, and life by exploration, free play, and hardly structured movement exposure.
- FUNdamentals: Ages 6-8 in girls and 6-9 in boys. A variety of structured sports should be introduced with a focus on fun and exposure.
- Learn to Train: Ages 8-11 in girls and 9-12 in boys. Youth should acquire a wide spectrum of sports skills by more structured play in a variety of sports.
- Train to Train: Ages 11-15 in girls and 12-16 in boys. Now youth can begin to focus on a basic aerobic base, strength, and more developed sports skill. Multiple sports should still be played, but they can be approached with a more competitive mindset even while the emphasis remains on process over outcome.
- Train to Compete: Ages 15-22 in girls and 16-22 in boys. This is where training and competition peak. Greater volumes, intensities, and level of focus are demanded for those choosing a competitive path, where others can choose to enter the Active for Life stage early.
- Active for Life: Anyone can enter this stage at any point if team sport grows disinteresting. Competitive sports athletes will enter this stage after their competitive careers. The basic direction here is to use the base provided and stay active for life.
What About the Adults?
Any efforts to right America’s destructive youth sports culture would do well to study the Canadian model. Still, like most perceptions of sport and fitness, after the “competitive stage” (this ends after high-school and college for most people), Canada drops the ball.
It seems collective humanity is getting stuck by this archetype where team sport must end before adulthood unless you are a professional. The role of the body for adults is only conceived of as watching team sport, coaching team sport, and, if time/desire permits, training their body for its own sake, with no prospect of ever having to perform again.
The LTAD model breaks down at the train to compete stage. After a lifetime enjoying sports, society broadly decides that athletes should begin devoting enormous energy to a select few pursuits, or they can choose to stay “active for life,” whatever that means.
A 16-year-old young man is left deciding whether he wants to invest 20+ hours per week playing soccer or to start doing pilates? It is A or B. Hypercompetitive or just don’t die. If the varsity years of high-school athletics don’t present this ultimatum, then college almost certainly does.
Furthermore, even if they want to remain competing in this train to compete stage of life, they may not have the option. Team sport increasingly becomes available only to the very talented and those willing to pay exorbitantly for select sports leagues.
At some point, generally between 16 to 22, regardless of whether you choose to be hypercompetitive or not, society seems to agree that the invaluable team-sport experience that virtually defined your early years should now be unavailable. For some reason that is reserved for children and professionals.
Adult sports options become solitary and, often, less sport than an extension of training. While I have a deep respect for martial-arts, powerlifting, and marathoners, and I think these sports are necessary, they lack the element of mutual dependency and collective mission that make team sport such a transcendent experience.
Culturally, we stop conceiving of team play for its own sake as a priority and this leads to declining physical, mental, and emotional health. What outlet could better address these adult needs than if humanity started to respect that these were needs for all people, not just kids?
Particularly in this age of automation, team sports play should be considered a necessity for people of all ages. Clearly, you usually wouldn’t want to have 55-year-olds playing 25-year-olds in soccer.
But, hell, if I’m 55 that is my goal. People would come in all shapes, sizes, genders, and levels that, depending on the sport, might require more or less stratification. Injuries might occasionally occur, outrage and litigation culture may have a hissy fit, but collective humanity would improve drastically.
I respect that the LTAD wants adults to be self-sufficient and autonomous in guiding their adult physical development. I agree that a well-developed model should promote freedom and individual responsibility. Still, we have failed to conceive of a more fulfilling and human-enriching vision.
The best approach to the final stage of our athletic development model should be a return to earlier stages where there is a great variety of sports and a focus on process over outcome. This more than anything else would provide communities a gateway into valuing health.
Today, even if avenues for adult team sport did exist, the adults who engage are typically labeled big kids. They are seen as the irresponsible who refuse to grow up. Adults are supposed to work at a desk all day and then battle traffic to get home so they can rush the kids across three towns for their ultra, triple-dog super elite 5th-grade travel ball practice. They aren’t supposed to still be playing themselves.
There are very few outlets and even less social normalization for adult sports leagues. Sure, you can play beer-league softball, but what about health-oriented communities where it is normal and encouraged for adults to engage in regular team sport?
Particularly as technology grows to create an atmosphere insufficient for meeting our human needs, team sport must become a staple for all ages, or communities will slip further into obesity, depression and the host of epidemics currently sweeping the developed world. Modern healthcare costs are unsustainably high and no one feels these costs more than employers dealing with their population’s lethargy and absenteeism.
Next time, I’ll explore why employers seem especially well-suited to address these growing concerns and how easily it would be for a new model of adult health to take root at foresighted companies. While private sector gyms would certainly benefit from this perspective, the adult organization seems an especially potent environment to combat the modern health crisis.
This Week’s Mission
The eventual fate of our children is to become adults. We have to restore and model a passionate adult experience if we want them to achieve that. Decide on a skill you want to learn and begin practicing.
Childhood is a never-ending succession of sucking at new pursuits until they become skills. For some reason, we adults grow averse to this essential process. Decide to learn bodyweight gymnastics, juggling, Wim Hof method, tennis, harmonica, Spanish, or any other skill. This may seem to contradict my message today, but I assure you the two work hand in hand.