A lot of parents will complain about how obsessive and unhealthy video games have become. All over you hear about how our childhood obesity rates are through the roof (25-30% last time I checked) and that inactivity is at an all time low. We look to sports to be an integral part of a solution to bring obesity down and activity up. I honestly think we are losing that battle in a general sense. However, not many people ask why video games are so popular. Why do kids love video games? Maybe we can take a similar model and apply it to athletics.
Lets look at some reasons why kids love playing video games and compare it to the USA's version of youth sports.
1. Judgements-Anyone can play video games. There is no judgement from the video game if you're tall, short, fat, skinny, fast, slow, etc. They can just play! Kids feel SAFE playing video games!
2. Progression- It starts off easy. The first levels from each game are very simple to get down the basics of what you will need as you get further on. In sports game you can start with easy mode and progress to professional mode at your own pace. The video games have mastered progression.
3. Skill acquisition- Struggling with a certain area? Kids can work on it until the skill is mastered playing video games. Often you can't advance until you've mastered the basic skills and buttons of the game. You can take as much time as you need without any pressure from outside sources. Once again safety!
4. Creativity- Many kids can win the level, kill the opponent, score a touchdown, etc in a different fashion than their friends. They develop styles that work for them and can try new things without anyone yelling at them. They feel safe to try new things because they don't have a coach eyeing everything they do.
5. Rewarding- Depending on the game you get rewarded in a different manner depending on the objective. If you lose, you just start back at the beginning and do it again.
Now lets at each of these points and how we teach sports.
1. Judgement- Kids are judged immediately these days. The bigger, faster kids will get more attention from coaches and parents, meanwhile those who struggle at first end up hating the sport or dropping out. Kids absolutely pick up on these cues. Even worse we make recreational and competitive teams starting at age 5 in some clubs. Those who start a competitive team at that age deserve some good ole fashion pink belly.
2. Progression- This is an area for great improvement. Either it's too lose or too strict with many youth coaches. Master basic skills in a fun way where learning is taking place. Standing in a line for a passing drill that's boring does not help but throwing them in complete chaos without direction or building into the structure is also detrimental. I know that many youth coaches are parental volunteers but I think it's time for leagues and organizations to introduce basic concepts on skill acquisition and deliberate practice.
3. Skill acquisition- This is a part that will get rushed through. Many kids struggle in one area and excel in another. In a team sport, a coach can't wait for everyone to master each skill or your team would never get anywhere. A solution is that coaches need to learn how to ignite players to practice weaknesses on their own. Talk to parents and kids about ways to improve certain areas. A good way for a youngster is to mention how some great athletes also struggled with that skill as well but practiced hard and look at them now. Don't just tell kids they need to practice, churn the passion so that they desire to get better. More info? Read Daniel Coyle's book The Talent Code.
4. Creativity- This one I will throw on coaches shoulders because you can't find a 5 year old who isn't creative. Creativity is squashed by coaches who try to control the situation. Instead set up the drill, explain the rules, and watch them play. Studies are starting to come out (check out Mike Williams) that more "coaching"/talking is not the most effective way for kids to learn and transfer skills. Letting the athlete come to conclusions through their path is much more effective than doing what coach says. The kid also will feel more accomplished. Setting up the situation for learning is your most important job as a coach. If not you'll feel like you have a meeting with Gary Cole in Office Space.
5. Rewards- We must reward, but reward the right things. Praise effort, taking risks, and thinking outside the box, instead of ability or "talent." This feedback is critical from long term growth. By rewarding effort over ability we teach them how to find the opportunity that lies in every situation. Rewarding ability can lead to fixed mindsets, big ego's, and the inability to face challenges. More on this go read Carol Dweck's book Mindset.
The overall message is that video games figured out a way to make kids safe playing their game, while giving them a sense of accomplishment and skill. Youth sports in the USA has gone the other direction. I'll end it with a quote from Patagonia founder