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Three Questions Youth Sports Parents Should Ask Themselves

My kid just turned four and, like many of your kids around that age, his interest in playing sports is starting to really bloom. He’s always been an active child, but in the past few months, he has become more interested in this whole “sports” thing. In many ways, he has had a typical amount of exposure to sports at this stage: basketball or football are often on the television, he has some friends who have started tee ball or soccer, and he comes to watch me play in an adult sandlot baseball league (ok, maybe that’s a bit more exposure to hipster Austin, TX subcultures than the average kid). But, basically, he’s grown up in a normal American household where sports are enjoyed.

That is, except for one key difference. Me.

For better or worse, my son has a father who happens to be a professor and consultant whose research expertise is in the area of youth athlete development – basically, how we design systems, programs, and policies that optimize not just the development of elite athletes but which make the overall experience of youth sports more positive for children. In other words, let the lab experiments begin! Olympics here we come! On the contrary, the irony of being someone who studies youth sports for a profession is that the more I understand about it, the more judicious and protective I become about ensuring that my son’s youth sports experience is something that my wife and I actively monitor and manage to make sure that he has the coaches and training environments that are likely to produce the best outcomes for his development as a human, not just as an athlete.

You may live under a rock, or you may have noticed that much of youth sports in America has become big business, an arms race to create mini professional athletes whose parents spend thousands of dollars per year on club dues, private training, and jet-setting to tournaments across the country. I won’t use this space to rehash all the troubling trends in youth sports I see when I’m researching or consulting. Numerous media outlets have spent increasing amounts of ink chronicling the crazy side of youth sports. And the purpose of writing this article is not to point out all the things that we are doing wrong with youth sports.

To be fair, there are a lot of things going right with youth sports as well, which speaks, in part, to the real reason I decided to pull back the curtain and share the thought processes behind how I’m approaching my own son’s youth sport experience: Parenting today feels a bit like diffusing a bomb with the clock ticking down. Do you cut the red wire or the blue wire?!? Do I put my kid on a travel team or let her play in the city league?!? Do we specialize in soccer only or do we sample multiple sports throughout the year?!? It’s easy to feel like one wrong decision can blow up those chances of a college scholarship before they even began.

As the parent of a four-year-old, I share your panic. As someone who studies youth athlete development, I’m less worried. The more I’ve discovered about developing young athletes (and developing kids through sports), the more I accept that The Answer doesn’t exist and there is no magic formula for success. Are there research-based approaches that are more likely to check the right boxes for success? Of course. Take the American Development Model, a long-term athlete development approach pioneered in the United States by USA Hockey, as an example. Are there groups of folks who are working to figure out how to make youth sports work better for everyone involved? Absolutely. Just check out what the Aspen Institute’s Project Play is working on.

But, as crazy as it may seem, for all my years studying youth sports, I’m not in a much different position than many of you. I’m a parent trying to do right by my son so that he has every opportunity to lead a successful, happy life. In fact, part of the reason I chose to sit down and share my thoughts is that I want to make sure I’m being as transparent as possible with myself about a complex process that can pull any well-meaning parent in all sorts of different directions.

So, in the coming paragraphs, I’m going to attempt to articulate an answer to the question that I’ve been asked hundreds of times over the past few years (and which we began to address in a panel I hosted at SXSW this past year): How does an expert in youth sports think about his own child’s sports experience?

What follows will be as transparent an account of my thought process as I can offer. What is most important for you, however, is not to just try to do what I’m doing (or not), but to identify the places where I talk through my decision-making and to work on developing your own approach to navigating these forks in the road. These are three key questions I’m asking myself:

What do I want my kid to get out of this experience?

A simple question, but one that really shapes so many of the choices we make. What are my goals for his experience? Is it scholarship or bust? Is it building character and teaching teamwork? All of the above? To start, I think it is essential to acknowledge that sports, in and of themselves, are not inherently good or bad. The child’s experience varies as a function of the way in which that experience is designed and managed. Can sports play a role in developing leadership skills? Absolutely. Do they automatically? Not necessarily. In fact, count me in the camp of folks who are skeptical of the sweeping positive claims we make about sports participation. Also, count me amongst an even smaller group of people who believe that we don’t ask enough of our sports experiences in fostering development in areas beyond the usual “character”-related focus.

Sports are a powerful context through which to develop things that are, frankly, often less easily cultivated in other contexts. They can put us in situations that demand us to experience and manage both the immediate reward of a home run and the delayed reward of a season-long championship pursuit. They force us to face public disappointment and to learn how to focus on process-oriented goals. They are often our first exposure to one of our most elemental human experiences: simultaneously pursuing individual and group goals within a social ecosystem where resources are limited and our ability to influence the success of the group is variable.

If we believe in the efficacy of sports to teach valuable stuff, this is what we are really referring to when we say “character” or “leadership.” Yet, we don’t often think about how sports should be a natural platform for teaching the things that research tells us correlate with success in life: grit, process-orientation, delaying gratification. When the first question we ask a kid when she gets home from her game is “Did you win?” we have to be aware of how that shapes her psychological response to her performance. If she’s a five-year-old chasing around the usual swarm of other kiddos on the soccer field, she isn’t likely to have the self-awareness, sport-related skills, or psychological framework to make a clear impact on the outcome of that game, and yet we just framed how she interprets how we are evaluating her performance in terms that are beyond her control. At her age, we should be asking her if she had fun, what she was proud of herself for doing, one thing she thinks she could work on improving – in other words, things that are process-oriented and generally under her control. So, when I think about what I want my son to get out of playing sports, I think about what psychological and social skills correlate with success in all areas of life, and I focus on how I use sports to instill them. And I can’t rely on coaches or other adults to do that for me.

Is it worth pursuing a scholarship?

It’s no accident that I failed to address the sub-question raised in the previous bullet point about whether one of my goals for my son is a college scholarship. For me, at this moment, I am not of the mindset that earning a scholarship should be a primary goal of his sports participation. You can certainly be of a different mindset than me, but chances are if you are reading a publication like this on a website like this, your child is going to have the proper support to be pursuing higher education through a number of means. And the statistics are pretty clear on this: pursuing an athletic scholarship is not a great financial investment. There are many sports economists who can show you how daunting the percentages are and how much smarter an investment in your child’s future it would be to focus on earning scholarships outside the playing field. And, yet, I know as well as anyone, that these depressing numbers about how many children actually earn athletic scholarships do very little to dissuade parents from pursuing them. When we see our child starting to have some success on the field or the court, our emotional self takes over and wants to do everything to make that dream come true. And on the surface there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with supporting your child’s athletic dreams, but be aware that the financial costs and opportunity costs may not pay dividends down the road – and don’t let that negatively impact your relationship with your child.

I’ve seen far too many parents who have sunk so much money into their children’s sport experiences that they cannot seem to help but feel like they need to get a return on that investment, often at the expense of their relationship with their child. If you are going to prioritize earning a scholarship as a goal of your child’s sport participation, at least give some thought to how you help their chances. And if an athletic scholarship is an absolute pre-requisite to your child being able to afford college, look for a match between their interests and the odds of earning a scholarship. For example, don’t pour money into your son’s soccer playing without realizing that there are only a precious few scholarship-granting men’s soccer programs in the NCAA. Or, think about whether your daughter should play lacrosse or row crew instead of playing soccer, as those are some of the faster-growing areas for women’s varsity programs across the country.

Here at the University of Texas, where I teach, I’ve worked with students of every possible athletic background, and I see that “making it” at even this high of a level is no guarantee for success and happiness; in fact, a lot of the student-athletes have been so focused on sports during their formative years that they seem to be underdeveloped in other key areas. Or they have been so overworked in getting here that they burn-out psychologically or their bodies begin to break down from overuse injuries. There are always trade-offs, and when you are dedicating so many of your family’s resources to the pursuit of an athletic scholarship, the trade-offs associated with success and failure can be severe.

Which sport(s) should he/she play and why?

As a caveat, so much of the answer to this question varies depending on the individual coach and the league, but some sports clearly foster different things than other sports. Do you want a sport that produces better physiological and health outcomes? Try ultimate Frisbee or cross country. Do you want a sport that could lead to easier lifelong participation? Try tennis or golf. Do you want a social environment with more peer-led, democratic social structures? Try skateboarding. Are sports an American rite of passage you believe in? Try baseball or softball. This isn’t a plug for those sports, but rather a chance to think about what sports are set up to deliver and how that might enter our thought process.

My wife and I just signed up our son for his first structured sport activity, and we made sure to think about what we wanted for him in this experience so that we could find a sport to match those goals. For the time being, we have landed on enrolling him in a once-a-week after-school rock climbing (or, “bouldering,” to be precise) club. Now, you may have a reaction – positive or negative – to that choice. It may be too hippy or “extreme” for your tastes, or you may be wishing you lived closer to a rock climbing gym. Either way, we arrived at this decision deliberately. Compared to soccer and tee ball and some of the more traditional team sports environments, we saw some clear advantages to starting out with a sport like rock climbing at this age.

From a physiological standpoint, rock climbing can help him develop transferable physical literacy, core strength that would be essential to any sport, and proprioception (learning how to position his body in a given space) that will be helpful whether he is making a save as a soccer goalie or reaching up to snag a fly ball on the baseball field. I often come back to the question of what will help him become an “athlete,” not just a player of a specific sport. In terms of the psychological considerations, we felt it very important that his first and formative sports experiences come in a setting where the locus of control was almost entirely internal, meaning that he feels that he has complete control over his performance. In the typical four-year-old team sports setting, there are so many factors that can play a role in their performance that kids are often faced with attributions for performance that don’t actually tie to their individual contribution. I want him to feel in complete control of his progress, success, and failure, so that he can begin his sports journey with a greater sense of control and a clearer feedback mechanism, all while participating in a fun social environment. I have seen many young kids lose their initial spark of interest in sports because they get stuck standing in right field waiting for other people to do things or they grow tired of the emotional roller coaster of winning and losing in circumstances where they played an unclear role in that outcome. Rock climbing, it would seem, should be an antidote to those potential poisons: his progress will be measured individually which each movement up the wall.

Only time will tell, and he may absolutely hate it, but if he doesn’t connect with it, we will try to persevere for a bit and then move on to the next option (and decide whether to try again later). And all the while he is enrolled in his rock climbing club, we will continue to play sports informally in the neighborhood. Sadly, this is a disappearing outlet for children these days but it is a great setting within which to develop a deep, joyful appreciation for sports.

Full disclosure: my research has led me to see immense value in the less structured, child-led sport experiences that are often harder to come by for today’s kids and their busy schedules. (Here is a Sports Illustrated podcast in which I talk about a study investigating the role of organized and unstructured sport experiences on the development of creativity). As we think about what sports to put our kids in, we can’t forget that simply going outdoors and playing catch with them, or letting the neighborhood kids round up a game of pickup basketball as they get older, are legitimate sports experiences for children.

So, that’s it for now. We are going to give rock climbing a go while we play some sandlot baseball and kick around the soccer ball in the yard. As his interests and abilities evolve, we will do our best to match them to positive youth sport experiences that align with our short- and long-term goals for him. I don’t have all the answers. None of us does. But I do have some questions, and my hope is that these questions may also help you think about how to make the most of your own child’s youth sports experience.

Five Challenges to Being a Better Youth Sports Parent

As a researcher, I spend a lot of time immersed in the world of youth sports. Tournaments, games, practices, you name it. During the years I have spent on the sidelines, I have started to see very clear patterns that, while imperceptible to most parents and coaches around me, shape everything that happens on and off the field. Hidden elephants in the room, if you will. Over the coming paragraphs, I’m going to address five patterns I see as the most common issues that seem to cast a shadow over everything we do in youth sports – even though we almost never acknowledge them. For parents of young athletes, these are realities with which you will likely be confronted if your kid spends any substantial length of time in sports – and with which you will absolutely be confronted if your kid is halfway decent.

1. When the lights come on and your kid takes the field, your rational self is going to lose out to your emotional self

You must be ready for this reality. You can – and should – embrace the visceral emotion that sports can bring on, but if you cannot be self-aware enough to step back and check in regularly with your rational self, you and your child are in for a long and bumpy ride. And I’m not even really talking about the normal ways we tend to describe the negative side of emotion in sports, like screaming at refs and emailing coaches at 2 AM and making your kid cry for striking out. Those are just matters of human decency and you should not do those things. The point I’m really trying to make here is that we all have two tracks running in our brains at all times (Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman details this process in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow), and the track that is tied to our most emotion-driven immediate reactions is much better at stealing the spotlight from our more rational, deliberative track. And sports are a perfect storm for losing ourselves to an emotional response. For most parents, they are the first time that you see your kid competing in a social setting with his or her peers. If that weren’t emotional enough, all the other kids’ parents are there, too, and there are clear social and psychic rewards for your kid outperforming the other kids. That’s not a recipe for rational behavior. But we must resist the urge to reward our more primal selves or we will be making decisions about our child’s futures that are driven by in-the-moment emotion instead of reason.

2. Your brain is programmed to resist my advice in the previous bullet point 

Gee, thanks, right? But, again, success in this area is not measured by 100% control all of the time; success comes from being able to be aware of how these factors may be shaping your decision-making. Sports are an incredibly powerful context where we not only see normal cognitive biases obscuring our thinking, but we see the effect of these biases magnified because sports are so meaningful in our society. As humans, our brains struggle with some things that have been hardwired in since the beginning of time but which have failed to adapt to more modern contexts. For example, we are incredibly loss-averse, so we will feel even more pressure to sign our kid up for a travel team when we see the other three kids on the block do it. We don’t want to miss out on an opportunity and see our kid fall behind. We also struggle with sunk costs, which is why you may feel compelled to keep pouring thousands of dollars into your daughter’s private basketball training even after you’ve started to realize that she may not have the ability or interest to progress to the next level. Similarly, we are ego-protective and our brains do everything they can to justify why the choices we have made are the right ones. However, some self-awareness can go a long way toward preventing long-term damage to your relationship with your child. You won’t be perfect, just as I’m not perfect, but you have to be aware of your imperfection in order to minimize the damage.

3. The pursuit of winning is (pretty much) ruining youth athlete development in the United States

Look, I’m as American as the next guy, but our obsession with winning in the United States has had some really negative effects on the early development of our young athletes. In fact, the pretense of winning (in terms of both games and seasons) undermines the developmental process at virtually every turn. I don’t believe in drastic measures like not keeping score but there’s a difference between trying to win and trying to develop the long-term habits that lead to winning – and we often sacrifice the latter for the former. In my experience, coaches and clubs who attempt to focus on the long-term development of their young athletes often have to do so at the expense of emphasizing the things that can artificially manufacture wins at the lower levels of sports participation. As you watch your child play sports, try not to let yourself be romanced by the fancy in-game tactics and narrow position-specific game planning of a team or coach; it is far more beneficial in the long run for the emphasis to be on phasing in those things at developmentally-appropriate times. The catch-22 is that parents often mistake a program that has misaligned priorities geared toward producing wins instead of development as being a superior program because of the results on the scoreboard. You’ll need to look deeper at what is driving the on-field successes and setbacks and see the bigger context. And remember: the development of good athletes and the development of good kids don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

4. Youth sports are currently designed to serve the interests of adults 

In conjunction with the previous point, my experience as a researcher and consultant suggests that we need to take a step back and ask some difficult questions about what we are doing with youth sports – and why we are doing it. This may not be a popular opinion, but I argue that the youth sports industrial complex, which generates some $15-billion annually, is really set up to meet the needs and interests of the adults who run it. Whether it’s coaches defying science and best practices to require kids to specialize in their sport year-round if they want a spot on the roster or travel teams and tournaments requiring thousands of dollars in travel and time commitments from younger and younger players to create a massive spectacle of an event to justify those very costs, we see a system where lots of people wring their proverbial hands over the professionalization of youth sport all while being complicit in the system itself. And I don’t blame you! The system is bigger than all of us and is set up in such a way that makes us have to make difficult choices and sacrifices that we shouldn’t have to make. The line between sporting success and failure shouldn’t require us to make a trade-off between our sanity and our children’s best interests. And yet, because we often try to treat the symptoms instead of the causes – and we see incentives and rewards that are too high-stakes to permit much change – we are left with few choices but to follow the crowd. I would recommend that you and your family (children included) take some time to define what you are and aren’t comfortable committing to this process. There aren’t always multiple pathways to success in a given sport, but there are often more options than we are able to see.

5. Your relationship to your childhood sports experiences often holds back the progress we can make in developing our kids

We are constrained by our own experiences in sports, owing to the fact that such meaningful and visceral experience is hard to disconnect from, especially when that experience was part of a formative period in our lives and tied to our identity development. And who could blame us? Yet this issue is compounded by the fact that so many of our youngest teams are coached by our least qualified coaches: parents. When we have well-intentioned parents coaching teams, the lack of expertise tends to produce two primary negative outcomes: an overreliance on that coach’s own childhood experience of what his/her coaches did a few decades ago and/or an overcompensating focus on modeling what professional athletes do in an effort to fast forward development. Think about this: did you do exactly what your parents did when raising your kids? You probably found some of what they did outmoded, and yet we do this with sports training all the time. We are really limited by our experiences, which in turn is limiting our capacity to re-envision what sports could/should be – and how best to develop our young athletes to achieve that vision. If you find yourself coaching your own children, be willing to take a step back and away from your personal experiences and be willing to recognize that while what Gregg Popovich does with the San Antonio Spurs may have some benefit for children to understand, running nine-year-olds through a Spurs practice is not going to accelerate their journey to the NBA; if anything, it’s likely to be developmentally inappropriate and have little effect beyond confusing them at this stage.

What can you do?

Some of these issues are beyond our individual control. Even those issues within our control can be difficult to manage. But the first step toward progress in any situation is to recognize and acknowledge that there may be a problem. By shining a light on these patterns that I see impacting virtually every youth sports environment I’ve studied, my hope is that an increased awareness can lead to some more thoughtfulness about our children’s development as athletes. We cannot necessarily control the youth sports systems within which our children are embedded, but we can take measures to try to positively impact how we contribute on an individual level to those systems.

Can Youth Sports Foster Creativity?

Check out an article we wrote for The Conversation about the relationship between youth sports and creativity.

Hook & Ladder Goes to China

Over this past fall, Hook & Ladder had some exciting opportunities to share our sport development knowledge and experience with an international audience. While we really enjoyed some of the smaller-scale projects, like working with the South Korean equivalent of PBS on a documentary profiling emerging sports – they were particularly interested in talking about our University of Texas Quidditch team and the roller derby revival here in Austin – our biggest event of the fall was being invited to be the lone representative for the United States at a global sport development workshop held in Beijing, China.

The event was hosted by the Capital University of Physical Education and Sports (CUPES) and included high-ranking government officials from the General Administration of Sport of China (GASC) as well as directors of national sport federations. The purpose of bringing all these high-ranking officials together with global experts in sport development was to promote an exchange of ideas between a handful of select countries about best practices for developing athletes at both the grassroots and elite levels.

Although Tolga couldn’t make the trip, Matt represented Hook & Ladder and the USA on his behalf – and both wrote a book chapter together in conjunction with the event.

We’ve included some photos from the trip below. Enjoy!

Matt meeting the President of Capital University of Physical Education and Sports prior to the beginning of the workshop

Matt sitting between the delegate from Canada (Dr. Tony Church) and the head of the Chinese soccer federation

Presenting on the United States’ approach to sport development relative to that of other countries

Another presentation given later in the day


A shot of Matt’s Chinese nameplate during a Q&A session with the government officials

A group photo of all the workshop participants, including the university hosts, the GASC and NSF officials, and the international delegates

Matt even had the opportunity to teach a class at CUPES while he was at the university

Matt got to spend one afternoon working with the founder and president of the largest grassroots soccer club in Beijing

On the last day in Beijing, Matt was taken to the Olympic village from the 2008 games – here’s a picture of the Bird’s Nest

Squeezed in a trip to the Great Wall prior to heading back to Austin



Pick-Up Sports: A Vital Part of Athlete Development


If you are like me, you grew up playing sports with the kids in your neighborhood. The free time to meet up with my friends at the park or the court after school was the highlight of my day, and looking back, served to teach me a lot about who I am today. As a professor and consultant specializing in the the development of youth athletes, I have spent the last decade studying youth sports and working with youth sports organizations to help them more effectively generate the outcomes they seek for their child participants. One of the most disturbing trends I have noticed over this period is the diminishment in unstructured, adult-free pick-up sports as a part of a child’s athletic routine. As parents strive to give their children access to the opportunities they never had, less structured experiences like pick-up sports seem to have become viewed as unsafe and unproductive.

Well, as a sport scientist, I am pleased to report that the emerging research into the impacts of playing sports in unstructured settings  is demonstrating very clear – and very positive – results for those kids who are given the opportunity to play without the typical structure and supervision of organized sports. Far from a waste of time or energy, pick-up sports can offer children a forum within which they can develop skills and abilities that are more difficult to foster in organized settings. In a study slated for publication in an upcoming special issue of the Journal of Sport Management this Fall, a colleague and I present the results of a study on youth sport participation settings that illustrate the way that playing sports in unstructured and organized settings actually complements the development of healthy attitudes about sport participation and creates opportunities for differential skill development. In another study currently in review at the Creativity Research Journal, my colleagues and I report the intriguing results of a study that found that adults who spent more time in unstructured sports settings as children are significantly more creative as adults. And these studies are just a few of the increasing number of studies that cite the benefits of playing pick-up for kids. Whether it is developing creativity, decision-making, emotional and social intelligence, or a host of other positive outcomes, pick-up sports are re-emerging as a viable developmental context for youth athletes. In fact, some of the youth sports organizations we have recently been brought in to consult for have seen appreciable developmental increases in their athletes by incorporating our advice to make pick-up a part of their athlete training.

If you’re interested in learning more about the benefits of pick-up sports, or would like to discuss how we can help your organization develop some more unstructured participation opportunities for your athletes, we’d love to talk with you.

What if We Didn’t Treat All-Stars like a Rare, Finite Resource?


It’s a question we almost never ask, so let me explain. If you’ve been around youth sports in any capacity, you know how critical it seems to the success of a team to get its hands on “the good kid.” At the beginning of every youth season, we see the frenzy that comes along with trying to get that “stud” on your team: parents and coaches rigging player allocation drafts and/or gaming the system by adding the parent of another “good kid” as an assistant so that the children have to be on a particular team together. As long as we’ve had youth sports, we have had adults scrambling to get those special talents on their team. And who could blame them? At the youth level, the difference in ability between the good players and the not-so-good players is about as drastic as it will ever be, so snatching up any outstanding performers is likely to pay big dividends in the ol’ win-loss column. In a competitive setting, it is human nature to try to hoard the best things for yourself, and this is largely how sports operate when it comes to high-performing athletes. I mean, if the Dallas Cowboys didn’t look out for themselves and hoard their player resources, that dynasty in the 1990s likely never would have happened.

But, I have some bad news for you: your youth team is not the Dallas Cowboys, as much as we might want to believe it to be the case. And if you run a youth sports organization, your goal is not simply to identify and distribute those children with superior athletic ability, but to work on designing and implementing systems that operate to develop that ability in as many children as possible. And, make no mistake, these are very different goals.

So, I’ll return to my title question: What if we didn’t treat these young all-stars as the rare, finite keys to success, but instead worked to develop a system that approached the development of that potential in all our athletes? We tend to glorify natural ability so much that we don’t often work to develop the abilities of those who don’t seem to have them. This may not be a huge problem for the one 8-and-under coed basketball team you coach this Spring; however, if we are looking at our bigger systems of development we can see larger failings to adequately develop a broad pool of young athletes. But if we stop treating an 11-year old soccer prodigy as a finished product who can win us games and start treating all the 11-year olds in our program as potential prodigies, we actually can create a subtle-yet-powerful paradigm shift.

I’ll leave you with a little food for thought…Here is Malcolm Gladwell, discussing some studies on elite Canadian hockey players and their birthdays, which were cited in his Outliers book. Is this related to what we’ve just discussed? What happens when we rethink aspects of our systems for athlete development? Could things as seemingly innocuous as the way we treat young stars or the birthday cut-off we use really make a difference in our outcomes? Yes. And we here at Hook & Ladder have the background and know-how to help you start to see your organization through a different lens.


Mythbusting Video Games as “The Problem,” Part 3: Levels and Badges

Note: This is Part 3 in a series exploring what youth sports can learn from how video games connect with and motivate children. To read the introduction to the series and Part 1, click here. To read Part 2, click here.

Point #3: Video games incorporate game design elements like levels and badges to chart development and motivate children to continue playing. If you’ve played a lot of video games, you know the satisfaction that comes from finally completing a difficult level. After multiple attempts and much frustration, you finally figured out how to maneuver through the pitfalls to reach safety and advance to the next level. Not only do you now get to “level up” to an even more challenging level that builds upon the skills you developed in the preceding level, but your avatar also has earned a “badge” with, for example, a picture of a fox on it that signifies to all other players that you completed the level through a remarkable demonstration of virtual cunning and guile. The better you perform, the more levels you complete and the more badges you earn. Do the badges really mean anything? Not really, but if you identify yourself as a gamer and your performance on the game has socially-constructed meaning for you, then earning badges to be displayed in the profile that others can see serves as an important representation of yourself to a social group about whom you care. Did I lose some of you? For more on the increasing use of gamification and the potential value of game design elements, watch some YouTube videos like this one – or sign up to take a free online Wharton business course on the topic.

How can we improve our youth sport experience? Although we are pretty good at talking about the value of winning in contrast to the experience of losing, we are not great about incentivizing children with smaller, achievable tasks and goals to support the pursuit of excellence. As we described in our last post, we tend to so heavily weight the outcomes of sport performance that we don’t dedicate the type of attention to promoting mastery of the process that would be developmentally ideal. So, how can we take some of the emphasis from the outcomes and shift it toward the process of becoming a better athlete for children? One way to do so is to design a system of levels and badges like we see in video games. To give credit where it’s due, martial arts has been drawing from these principles with its systems of belt- and stripe-promotion long before video games were around. And there is a reason that the practice has persisted. Martial arts belts are like badges you receive for completing a level (hence, demonstrating the skills necessary to achieve that level). They serve both as an outward indicator of accomplishment and a more internal motivator to achieve. We have worked with some youth sport organizations to institute systems of levels and badges for youth basketball players, for example. So, when a child completed a particular developmentally-significant set of skills like being able to dribble down the court and properly execute a layup, she was given a yellow sweat band to replace the white sweat band that all players receive upon signing up. By tying the sweat bands to the achievement of certain levels of skill, we not only create a system where coaches and trainers can clearly see who has or has not progressed toward the fundamental skills we are teaching at that level (so that we can intervene and help move them toward reaching this marker), but the children are motivated socially to want to work toward mastering the skills that will allow them to receive their sweat band promotion like their friends. And, in this way, we shift the focus from simply who wins or loses the games toward a mastery orientation where skill development in practice is given its proper emphasis.

Stay tuned for more ideas about how video games can be used to inform what we do with children in a youth sports setting…



Mythbusting Video Games as “The Problem,” Part 2: Process vs. Outcome

Note: This is Part 2 in a series exploring what youth sports can learn from how video games connect with and motivate children. To read the introduction to this series and the first installment, click here.

Point #2: Video Games create an environment where failure is part of the learning process. Have you ever sat and watched a child play a difficult video game (or played one yourself)? What happens when the child’s avatar “dies” or he fails the level? Does he throw the controller in frustration and talk about how he wants to quit video games? Maybe every now and again, but that type of response is much more likely to be exhibited by a child striking out after a Little League at-bat than a child failing to complete a video game level – at least according to our years of experience studying the behavior of children. More often than not, when children lose at video games, they simply start the level over and try to correct their mistakes from the previous attempt. In other words, they refine their play and work to perform at a higher level: they learn.

How can we improve our youth sport experience? The important social and cultural meanings we attach to sport performance at any level make it difficult to create an environment where children focus on learning and improving from failure or underperformance. The big sticking point in making progress to develop these types of developmental environments is the inevitable importance we attach to outcomes when evaluating sport performance. The reality, however, is that the research literature has shown that it really doesn’t matter whether your kid or your team win or lose until they enter their teen years, more or less. Now, this observation is always met with indignation by parents and coaches who place subjective value on “learning to be a winner” or some other pseudoscientific justification. Virtually all of the developmental research shows that if we focus on mastery and emphasize the process instead of the outcome, our children will develop to be better athletes and better people. We adults just haven’t yet figured out how we can realistically do that. One of many things that we help our clients implement is a system for teaching children, parents, and coaches what specific skills to focus on during practices and games when evaluating the child’s performance. If your developmental program emphasizes decision-making, it is more beneficial for you to be tracking the length of time between when the ball is passed to a player and when he/she makes a decision with what to do with that ball. If the shot goes through the net, that’s fantastic…but it’s also developmentally secondary during this period. By focusing on processes that children can control over outcomes that they ultimately cannot (like winning the game), we can take steps to create a learning environment focused on mastery – and one that looks much more like what appeals to children about many video games.

Stay tuned for our next installment in the series…

Mythbusting Video Games as “The Problem,” Part 1: Feedback

When we are out working with an organization, one of the most common questions we get – especially from frustrated parents – is “Why would my kid rather sit inside playing video games than be out running around with his/her friends?” This question usually is then followed by a long speech about how the parent used to play outside from the minute school let until the sun had gone down and the dinner bell rung.

As a society, we have responded to the increase in video game play amongst our children largely by talking about how video games have cast some evil spell over kids and are making them fat, rotting their brains, etc.

But, what we haven’t spent a lot of time doing is asking ourselves what it is about video games that often make them so much more appealing to children than going outside and playing sports. In other words, why do kids want to play video games in the first place?

The research at this stage is pretty conclusive about what makes video games appealing, and as you examine some of these key principles of video gaming, we challenge you to use these principles as a lens to question not what is wrong with our children for wanting to play video games, but what may be wrong with our youth sports programs that they aren’t able to connect with children in the same manner.

Over the next few posts, we will be discussing why video games are winning the battle for our children’s attention. As we discuss each of these principles, it should start to become quite obvious that if we want to get our children back out and enjoying sports, we need to take a hard look at how we design our youth sports programs…

Point #1: Video games provide immediate feedback on your performance. Think of just about any 5-7 year old soccer match you’ve been to recently. It’s a pretty safe bet to assume that at least a handful of the kids were running around with confused looks on their faces while trying to understand what they are supposed to do as the “good” kid dribbles around the field and the parents shout “boot it!” every time the ball rolls toward him or her. That child has no way of evaluating his or her performance in a game where they ran around confused, kicked the ball five times, and lost the game 6-1. That’s not fun – and it has nothing to do with winning or losing. What it has to do with is the child being able to internally gauge their progress and performance. What is a good game? A five-year-old has very little idea other than what he or she perceives the reactions of others to be. In a video game, however, children have points and levels and all sorts of easy-to-interpret indicators to tell them exactly how they are doing…and the children have the opportunity to figure out on their own what they need to do to make improvements.

How can we improve our youth sport experience? Well, there are a number of things that parents and coaches can do. Let’s discuss one idea. If one of the benefits of playing video games is the immediate feedback it provides about the child’s performance, we need to think about how we can create a more responsive feedback mechanism for our five-year-old who is chasing butterflies and confused about what the adults are yelling. For this child, the only feedback provided is “did I screw up or not when I kicked the ball?” and “did we win the game?” Neither of those feedback mechanisms do much to foster a desire to want to keep playing and improving. But, if we break down the game into mini-games for the players that occur within the larger “real” game, we can redirect their attention toward something productive and motivating. So, rather than just measuring how many goals a child scored, we can measure and track all sorts of other behaviors, such as the number of times the child ran up and down the field, the number of passes he or she completed, or even zanier types of behaviors of your own devising. These are all behaviors that can assist in the child’s development, but which can also be a fun source of feedback for the child regardless of how many goals or scored or whether a game is won or lost – feedback that is individual and not as dependent on overall team performance.

At Hook & Ladder, we often work with youth sports organizations who are trying to find ways to re-engage with children while fostering their development. This is just one example of some of the types of kid-tested, science-approved program design elements we can bring to your organization. Stay tuned for our next post on video games and how we may be able to use their design principles to get our children to put down the controllers and head back outside…

Things Heating Up: H&L Announcement Coming Soon

It has been a busy summer at H&L HQ and things seem to really be heating up – both literally and figuratively. In addition to wrapping up some projects, Tolga has been spending some time overseas and I have been teaching a pretty full summer load at the ol’ university.

In spite of all the other things going on, we have been working diligently behind the scenes on a major development that we will be announcing in the coming month or so. This latest development will not only be something that can help us continue to serve our current client base, but will enable H&L to take steps toward playing a more influential role in the global conversation about sports, innovation, and what the future can hold for the role of sports in society.

So, stay tuned for the big news…