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.

Categories: Development, Youth

  • Sometimes kids are going to learn more by just picking up a ball and playing a game on the local playground with their friends than they will in a structured setting. They are responsible for keeping score, being honest about fouls, working it out on their own and more. Plus, it stays a game and is free from the pressure that comes with competitive youth sports. We could all use a few more pickup games in our lives!

  • Ryan

    I sympathize with your point of view. Just out of interest, do students really have places and time to have the pick-up games? I don’t see many children can play pick-up games…what if these children are not live in a compact city? it is hard to get play together after school for students who live in local or mid-size cities. How can we build up the environments for them to play these games? Unstructured sport in structured way? I’m getting interested in it!!