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Youth Sports, 'A Taste of Things' Review, News Insights

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Dr. Brad Strand, NDSU
Dr. Brad Strand, NDSU

Dr. Brad Strand, a professor at North Dakota State University, discusses the crucial role of coaches and parents in youth sports. He advocates for a focus on the athletes' physical, mental, and social well-being, rather than the traditional emphasis on competition and winning, highlighting findings from his research published in Routledge Sports Studies. Matt Olien reviews "A Taste of Things," and news Director Dave Thompson offers a thoughtful analysis of current news events, providing listeners with insights into the latest developments and their implications. This blend of sports science, cinematic artistry, and news analysis makes for a richly diverse and informative episode.

Dr. Strand Interview Highlights:

The interview with Dr. Brad Strand on youth sports covers several critical points and insights into the challenges and recommendations for improving the youth sports landscape:

  1. Challenges in Youth Sports: Dr. Strand identifies the main stakeholders in youth sports—communities, parents, coaches, and children—and discusses their differing perspectives and priorities. He highlights the pressure from communities and parents for success, often at the expense of inclusivity and the well-being of the children.
  2. Economic Barriers: The interview touches on the economic aspects of youth sports, where costs can exclude children from lower-income families. Dr. Strand suggests that more youth sports should be accessible and run by parks and recreation departments to ensure every child has the opportunity to play.
  3. Importance of Fun: Despite the competitive nature of youth sports, both Dr. Strand and surveys of children emphasize that fun is the primary reason kids participate in sports. This contrasts with the adult-driven focus on winning and scholarships.
  4. Specialization and Pressure: The conversation addresses the trend towards early specialization in sports, driven by the hope of college scholarships and professional success, which is both unrealistic for most and potentially detrimental to children's long-term engagement with sports and physical activity.
  5. Solutions for Inclusivity: Dr. Strand suggests solutions to make sports more inclusive, such as economic support for children who cannot afford to participate in travel teams and other costly sports activities.
  6. Role of Coaches and Parents: The interview underscores the critical roles that coaches and parents play in making youth sports a positive experience. Coaches should focus on development and inclusion, while parents should provide support without pressuring their children.
  7. Mental Health and Youth Sports: The pressure from specialization, competition, and adult expectations can negatively affect children's mental health. Dr. Strand advocates for a more balanced approach that values participation, personal growth, and enjoyment.
  8. Advice for Youth Sports Organizations: Dr. Strand calls for youth sports leagues to measure their success by retention rates rather than wins, suggesting that enjoyment and continued participation are better metrics for success.
  9. Coaching Education: The need for better education and support for volunteer and community coaches is highlighted, to ensure they can provide age-appropriate, inclusive, and enjoyable sports experiences.

Youth Sports Transcription

Main Street

Dr. Brad Strand is a professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition, and Exercise Sciences at North Dakota State University. Dr. Strand, thanks so much for joining us on Main Street.

Dr. Brad Strand, NDSU

Thank you.

Main Street

I'm very happy to be here. What I hope we can do today is talk about the state of youth sports in your eyes. What's good?

What's bad? And maybe recommend maybe some changes that you've thought about in your research and in your work. If I were to ask you the biggest challenges that are out there for youth sports today in your eyes?

Dr. Brad Strand, NDSU

You know, I think first off you've got to look at the entities that are involved. And basically there's the community, there's the parents, there's the coaches and the kids. And what is the purpose of youth sport for each of those entities?

And for the community, youth sport can sometimes be a source of pride. Like in Fargo-Moorhead's team getting to the Little League World Series. It's an economic driver where you have an under-10 hockey tournament that draws teams from California.

And so the community can view youth sports from that perspective. Parents view youth sports as sometimes living vicariously through their kids, certainly giving their kids an advantage to learn skills and develop good social relationships. I think more recently the fact that scholarships are such a thing available.

The NIL licensing in college. So if your kid gets good enough they're going to get a college scholarship. Well college scholarships are like chum when you're fishing.

You know, they're throwing it out there as this is a good thing and if you work hard you can get it. Well very few kids get college scholarships. Like 1% of all high school kids get a college scholarship.

So that's a non-starter. But for many parents it is the starter. When their kids are 10, 11, 12.

Exactly. And fair enough, for some parents that might be the only way their kids are going to go to college is by getting a scholarship. And so that becomes then their way out.

So then for coaches, what's their real reason for doing this? And for most coaches it's to help kids develop. It really is.

You got those examples of coaches that are doing inappropriate things or saying inappropriate things, but for the most part coaches are doing this for the right reasons and helping kids develop skills and help them build character and value in being physical activity. And then what do the kids want? And for the most part kids want to have fun.

That's why most kids play sports. Does that change for kids at a certain age? Over time?

Funny you ask that question because when you ask children, little kids, why do you play sports? The answer is to have fun. Fargo Public Schools does a survey of their high school kids and I brought a copy to show you.

And the number one reason why high school kids play sports is to have fun. Winning is like 2% of the athletes say they play high school sports to win.

Main Street

So when a school doesn't win, their coach is what?

Dr. Brad Strand, NDSU

Chastised, blamed, something. But most of the kids, they're doing it to have fun, to improve my skill, to develop fitness because I'm good at it, I like competition, to be on a team. Yet winning becomes the driver and most kids are going, well, I want to hang with my friends.

I want to play because my friends are playing.

Main Street

So here we are in the youth sports world and there are a lot of teams. Some of those teams are not available to everyone. Some of those teams are not available to kids who would love to play.

What should be done differently?

Dr. Brad Strand, NDSU

That's the unfortunate thing. Economics has become an important part of being able to play youth sports. Ideally, if youth sports could go back to being run by parks and recreation departments and available for every kid in the community, we're better off.

Main Street

Let me ask a quick question because you research this stuff. Why then have we started to worry so much about that 1% that you talked about just a moment ago instead of the 99% who probably would fit in that model you just described?

Dr. Brad Strand, NDSU

I don't know the answer to that question. But I suppose it has something to do with the recognition that comes from winning. The pride the community gets, the bragging rights of parents, coaches being able to say, I coached the championship team, although they're 10 years old.

The chance to go to a state tournament when you're 9, to go to a national tournament when you're 10. Those kinds of things, I think, supersede thinking about having everybody participate. One of my guiding principles is to keep the talent pool as large as possible for as long as possible.

Keep as many kids engaged for as long as you can because youth sport rewards early developers. The kids that are the tallest, the fastest, the bigger when they're 9 get to play. The late developers, late bloomers, well if they stick with it, they're going to do okay.

But they're not going to stick with it because they're chosen last, they don't get on the travel teams, they don't make the all-star teams, they don't get as many at bat. They cut those kids and they say, come back and try again next year. Well, how do you get better when you have no place to play?

Nobody helping you. So it's a system set up just to reward those special kids, that 1%.

Main Street

And I would argue, correct me if I'm wrong, parents with means to support those kids who are the 1%.

Dr. Brad Strand, NDSU

Exactly right, because what's it cost to buy the uniform now? You're on a travel team, every weekend you're going someplace to play, which means hotel room for you and your child and your children, and then you've got to buy the uniforms and the bats and the gloves, and for hockey the equipment, and then you have to go to the camps. If you don't have the money, you are basically left out.

Are there solutions that can change that? Have you thought about that? You know, I have thought about that, and how do you give more kids opportunities to play on travel teams when they're coming from situations that don't have money?

Is there a way that you can do a reduced fee? Well, then somebody's going to have to pay so the team can participate in the league. A couple years ago, I did a little project where I went out and raised money, I called it Soccer USA or something, and we raised money and purchased soccer balls for all the elementary school children in two elementary schools in Fargo, disadvantaged schools.

I went and found the schools that have the highest minority rates and Title I free and reduced lunches, and we gave every one of those kids in those schools soccer balls, and then we provided them with some free soccer lessons and tried to give them a little bit of an advantage, too. So I don't know the answer to that question exactly. Economics is the big thing, and how do you get around that?

Main Street

So what advice, I guess, would I have you give to a parent who does have means, wants to either have their kid participate or even, beyond that, organize a team so their kid can participate? What would you tell a parent like that?

Dr. Brad Strand, NDSU

You know, Parks and Rec provides some programming, but those programmings, in many cases, become like hit and giggle, and it's more recreational, and if you want your kid to really develop sports skills, you're going to have to get them on one of these. How do they do that? I don't know the answer to your question.

Those are tough questions. Those that don't have certainly get left behind. You know, another one of my guiding principles is taking care of those on the margins, and I use that when I teach my coaching classes.

You got certain kids that are on the margins, and as a coach, you better take care of those kids. You got to gather them in somehow. You got to make them feel like they're part of the team, and they're sitting on the end of the bench, they're never getting any playing time, they're really marginalized, but you got to bring them in.

And how do we bring these kids in that don't have the means?

Main Street

Do schools then, can they share in this, I'm not going to call it a responsibility, but in this effort to be more inclusive in a very thoughtful way?

Dr. Brad Strand, NDSU

I think so. Fargo North has Spartan Youth Basketball, and they provide basketball practice and teams for I suppose, I don't know what ages they are, 9 through 12 or something like that. And I think everybody can join in that.

Now, the second thing gets to be, when you don't have the means sometimes, how do you get to practice? Kids can't drive, if mom and dad can't drive them there, they can't take part. Single parent family where mom's working?

Main Street

Single parent family, yes.

Dr. Brad Strand, NDSU

And so, we need to structure practice time so that kids have an opportunity to get there, but that's another challenge. And then coaches get mad at kids for not showing up on time when the kids have nothing to do with getting there on time because they can't drive with mom and dad bringing them there. And mom and dad have legitimate excuses, and the coaches then sometimes chastise the kids, and so that's really welcoming, isn't it?

Main Street

How important is youth sports for people that have been successful and have participated? And can that help us understand why folks in the margins should really be a part of this?

Dr. Brad Strand, NDSU

Well, without a doubt. You know, first off, youth sport today is a $20 billion industry.

Main Street

$20 billion.

Dr. Brad Strand, NDSU

$20 billion. It's going to $70 billion by 2030, it's bigger than the NFL. So it's not going away.

It's just going to keep on getting bigger. However, the number of kids participating has gone down . So why are kids quitting when the industry is getting bigger?

So that's something we've got to figure out. And some of the reasoning would be because of the early specialization, because of all the travel involved, because of the games that are on TV, the little kid games that are on TV, kids are just tired of so much of that that they're just pushing back. Now, sports like tennis and golf, numbers have increased.

But team sports, numbers have gone down for kids participating.

Main Street

That in soccer, in volleyball, in basketball, in baseball.

Dr. Brad Strand, NDSU

Tackle football, lacrosse, things like that.

Main Street

Are injury risks a part of that?

Dr. Brad Strand, NDSU

Yes, they are. And you know, we certainly hear about the concussions in every sport. And so certain parents have said, you know, I'm not going to let my kid play football, for example, because of the risk of concussions.

Main Street

What do you think about that as somebody who's really vested in understanding youth sports and the benefits later? I guess it may fall down to training of coaches and training of youth sports leagues to talk about these things.

Dr. Brad Strand, NDSU

And I didn't answer your first question about what are the benefits of youth sports, but certainly being engaged in any kind of a team activity, a team sport, drama club, music, whatever it is, you certainly learn to work with other people. You learn some responsibility. You learn leadership.

One of the good things about being a multi-sport athlete is you learn different roles as an athlete because in one sport, you might be the superstar leader. In another sport, you're the sixth man or the 10th man or the 11th man, and you learn a different role there. And all that's important in terms of developing character and responsibility and self-efficacy and self-esteem and those kinds of things.

Main Street

Is it your view that kids are specializing more today than they were two years ago, five years ago, ten years ago? Much more.

Dr. Brad Strand, NDSU

Much more. I did an analysis one time where I looked back to my high school. I counted how many kids played three or four sports, and I went down through the years, and the number of multi-sport athletes today is certainly down from what it was ten years ago and 20 years ago for sure.

So the pressure to specialize because of the scholarship possibility. Parents feel trapped. You know, they've got to get their kid in there.

They have to get them specializing. They have to get them the special coach. They have to get the travel team because I call it entrapment, parent entrapment, because if I don't, I'm falling behind.

Or really, my son's daughter's falling behind, but I say I am because I'm still connected with them. Here's what I find interesting. You talk to a parent and they say, we've got a game today, and they say, who's we?

They say, well, we. My daughter has a game. I said, it's not we.

I said, your daughter has a game. But see, this is how invested we are. It's we.

We. Like, we are playing. We're hitting with more power this year.

They said, who's we? Well, my daughter's hitting with more power. I said, oh, okay.

Main Street

Is this at all an urban-rural issue in North Dakota in your eyes, or is it pervasive everywhere?

Dr. Brad Strand, NDSU

Yeah. Yeah. Certainly, the kids in rural North Dakota are more diversified in their sports.

Schools have a limited number of athletes. Which you would say is a good thing. Which is a good thing, yes.

And so, if you play football, the season's done. You play basketball, the season's done. You run track or do something.

And the summertime, you're probably sometimes working on the farm, maybe playing baseball. Who knows? Maybe go to a camp here and there.

Now, at some point, there's nothing wrong with specialization. Really, for kids that are like six to 13, we want them sampling a lot of things. Try a lot of things.

Play a lot of sports. Once you get to like 15, now maybe you're going to start cutting back. So I played four sports in high school, and when I got into my sophomore year, it was down to two sports.

And then I finished up playing two high school sports. And then at some point, you're investing in it. You're going to sample a lot of things.

I'm going to pick these two and specialize, and now you're going to go full bore and invest in this. But that's not until you're like 16, 17 years old, where you, now you're going to hang your hat on something.

Main Street

If you were the king of youth sports in the country, would you eliminate travel teams for kids under a certain age? And if so, what's that age?

Dr. Brad Strand, NDSU

Yes, I would. And you know, what's crazy is, you've got some hockey teams that are elite, you know, whatever elite means. You're 10 years old and you're elite.

And you travel to Minneapolis to play teams, and there's other teams from Fargo traveling to Minneapolis to play in that same tournament, and I'm thinking, why travel when you can play each other right here? This is kind of silly, you know, but they're doing it. If I was in charge, probably 12, maybe like 5th or 6th grade.

Main Street

Are national organizations looking at these, and I'm thinking of like USA Soccer.

Dr. Brad Strand, NDSU

You know, that's a good question. AAU, Amateur Athletic Union, they have national championships for every age group in many sports all across the country. So I would argue they're not looking out for the kids, because it's all about winning a national championship at age 9, or age 10, or age 12.

One time I was walking through the airport, and I saw a young boy, he might have been 5 or 6 years old, he had a big trophy, and I said, hey, what are you the trophy for? And dad comes over, and dad is smiling, and he said, he was in a karate tournament in Washington, D.C. We were in the airport in Baltimore or someplace. And I said, oh, that's pretty cool.

Did your son win that? Yeah, he did. He got first place.

The trophy was as big as the kid, I kid you not. Now how do you top that in your life? You'll never win another trophy bigger than you in your life.

And why give a kid a trophy so big that it's bigger than him? But AAU is giving out awards and trophies and ad nauseum to try to get people to come to these tournaments and claim they're the state champions, the national champions, the whatever champions. Little League Baseball has been doing the Little League World Series since 1947.

There have been less than 50 players that played Little League World Series that made it to the major leagues. That's all. And so what happened to the rest of them?

They dropped out. We do know, and the research shows, that when you specialize early, you are less likely to be active as an adult. Sometimes it's injuries, sometimes it's just, I'm tired of it, I've had enough.

And if you wait and invest later on, you're more apt to be active for a lifetime.

Main Street

So that's pretty important. What have we learned about the mental health issues relative to youth sports?

Dr. Brad Strand, NDSU

Well, you know, we are putting so much pressure on these young kids to perform, to meet up to the expectations that mom or dad or coach has for them. I mean, there's enough for them with their own expectations, and now you have to please mom or dad. You know, so the game goes on.

The kids are looking over to the bleachers to see if mom and dad are watching, if mom and dad are saying anything. And the game ends, and you get into the car, and certainly dads more than moms, the research has shown, starts telling the kids what they did wrong. Mostly it's what they did wrong, how they can do it better.

And this is going to turn the kids off faster than anything else in the world. Just let them be. The game is over.

Go get ice cream and have fun. If they want to talk about it, talk about it. But most kids don't.

Talking about mental health issues, I mean, the state of America right now with mental health issues, due to social media, you know, trying to keep up with everybody else, and then you got mom and dad pressure, and you got coach pressure, and wow, that's a lot. And so at some point, something gives. And then a stigma comes with that, right?

If you get labeled that you have, like, a struggle, pretty soon there's a stigma, and you got problems.

Main Street

You couldn't keep up.

Dr. Brad Strand, NDSU

Couldn't keep up. You're not strong enough.

Main Street

You're not good enough.

Dr. Brad Strand, NDSU

You got to have mental toughness. And we use the word mental toughness probably inappropriately because most coaches talk about mental toughness. They're meaning that you can physically take it.

If you can physically take it, you're mentally tough. Well, I could argue they're two separate things.

Main Street

I want to interject here. One of the most interesting pieces of literature that I read about this when my kids were growing up was the Matheny Manifesto. And Mike Matheny was a major league coach for the Cardinals.

He was a catcher by trade, but he wrote a book called The Matheny Manifesto. Essentially, when he got fired as a coach, he had to go do something, and he was asked, I believe, it's been a while since I've read it, to coach his local high school team. And he said, I'll do it, but this is the way I'm going to do it, and he wrote The Matheny Manifesto.

You can go to, I think, and read a seven-page summary of that. In my opinion, every parent in the country should be given that, and it talks about exactly what you just said. Once the game's over, what should a parent do during the game?

What should the parent do during practices? What should the parent do? It will come as a major surprise, I think, what Mike Matheny writes about.

Dr. Brad Strand, NDSU

I think Mike Matheny got away with that because his reputation as a professional baseball player. If it would have been you or me writing that manifesto and giving it to the parents, I'm not so sure they would have accepted it the same way. But what he said was spot on.

Back off. It's the kid's game. It's their time.

It's not your time. It's their time. Let them experience it in the way they experience things.

Main Street

Some advice I recall was drop them off at practice, pick them up when practice is finished. Don't hover over practice. Go to the game, clap a little bit, and then go get ice cream after the game.

Dr. Brad Strand, NDSU

Exactly, yep. The research that I've done with kids, I did a project called The Voice of Athletes, and we asked young kids, what were the positive things with your mom and dad at the game? What were some of the negative things?

What were some of the positive things with the youth sport experience? What were your experiences with the coaches and so on? And so for the parents, positive things were being there.

Be there. Give me affirmation. Cheer me on.

Negative thing was not being there. Unwelcome advice was number two. And then criticizing.

So the kids want the parents there, but they want them there just to be supportive and giving affirmation. That's what the kids think. You know, I think, when I think about youth sports, I think of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, if you remember what that was at all.

Main Street

Way back in the psychology class somewhere.

Dr. Brad Strand, NDSU

And so the bottom level of that is physiological needs. Having food, having clothing, having sleep. The next level up was safety.

And so when I teach coaching classes, we talk about what does safety mean to kids coming to baseball practice? What does safety mean? And if you're not safe, you're not going to come back.

So safe from ridicule, safe from getting hurt, safe from getting into fights, safe from a coach insulting you, safe from being picked on, okay? So if you're safe from those things, I'm coming back to practice tomorrow. If not, I'm not coming back.

And then the next level up gets to be connections. And so you bought into it now, but if you don't connect with anybody, you're not coming back. And so the coach has to intentionally connect with the athlete, and the athletes have to intentionally connect with each other.

Well, if you're ostracized and if you're the marginalized kid, nah, I'm going to go find something else to do, and I'm going to drop out. 70% of kids drop out by age 13, kids that play youth sports. If we say youth sport does all these wonderful things for kids, well, a great portion of them aren't getting those wonderful things.

So something is amiss with what we're doing in our youth sport programs.

Main Street

What questions should youth sports leagues ask themselves at the end of every season?

Dr. Brad Strand, NDSU

I would like to know, you know, what's your metric for measuring success? And one metric that I think is important is retention of kids. Nationally, they use the word churn.

Churn is how many kids, they play one season and drop out. So 40 to 50% of kids do that. Why are they dropping out?

That's a huge issue. If you got FM Athletics football in town, and if they have 400 kids playing this year, well, what's the retention rate for next year? If it's 50%, I would argue that you guys didn't do a very good job.

Now, I don't know what the retention rate is. I'm not even sure they measure it. But if it's 90%, you go, well, kids are coming back.

Something's good about this. They're having fun. They're connecting.

Coaches are good. So I would use the retention of kids coming back as a metric. One metric to measure success.

Because if they come back, they're enjoying what's going on.

Main Street

There are many coaches, I think, who are well-meaning, like you said much earlier in the interview. They really want to serve their team well, but they have no training. They have no history of understanding what that means.

How can they get support?

Dr. Brad Strand, NDSU

If you're a high school coach, you have the State High School Coaches Conference that you can attend and get updates on coaching education.

Main Street

Well, let's just say I'm a dad coaching my 14-year-old baseball team or whatever.

Dr. Brad Strand, NDSU

I would like to see the youth sport organizations invest in more coaching education with the coaches. Bring in people, perhaps like myself, who are—my job is coaching education. I can teach you what the appropriate practices are for a certain age, what the scope and sequence should be for teaching a certain age group of kids.

I once watched a youth football coach. He was doing a drill. If you know football, they set out the dummies, and the kids were supposed to step over the dummies.

And these were 10-year-olds, and they're struggling to do it. And the coach comes over, and he's mad at the kids because nobody's trying, and nobody can do it, and blah, blah, blah. And I said, well, it's not that they can't do it.

The dummies are too high up in the air. They can't lift their legs that high. They're stumbling.

I said, put a rope on the ground and have them just step over the rope, and I said, every kid is going to have success. That's an appropriate practice. So sometimes it's just the coaches not recognizing scope and sequence and inappropriate and appropriate practices.

And so that's where coaching education comes in, and I think where the associations could bring in people that could mentor them through some of these things. You know, so many of the youth league coaches played sports. And so if you played sports, obviously, you have an idea that you think you know how to coach sports.

It's different. But it's different. Playing and coaching.

It's a different thing, and the biggest thing for me is the psychological way that people treat children. There are not many adults, and you can't treat children like adults. What age should tackle football be allowed?

I wish that wasn't until junior high school.

Main Street

It's been a pleasure.

Dr. Brad Strand, NDSU

Thank you. I appreciate your time.

NOTE: This transcript was generated using AI tools. The audio of the show is the official record.