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I’ve been reading a lot over the past couple of months about organized play and our country’s penchant for developing elite athletes at an early age. With the focus in our schools on raising test scores, recess time has been cut; kids start playing competitive sports at younger and younger ages; and kids in the inner-cities have less and less green spaces to play. All of these factors are having a detrimental impact on our youth, both emotional and physical. Kids have fewer and fewer opportunities to just play. As Jessica Lahey recently wrote in her article in The Atlantic, “Why Free Play is the Best Summer School”:

Free play is nature’s means of teaching children that they are not helpless. In play, away from adults, children really do have control and can practice asserting it. In free play, children learn to make their own decisions, solve their own problems, create and abide by rules, and get along with others as equals rather than as obedient or rebellious subordinates.

Jessica and I have been tweeting with each other about this subject and the research that has been conducted all over the world. We all have come to the same conclusion, let’s let the kids be kids and develop these important life skills before we push them into organized sports. Not only will they be better people, but they will be able to have a better shot at physically withstanding the rigors of intense athletic competition when they get older. The LA84 Foundation held a summit last spring that brought together Olympians, Paralympians, sport administrators, scholars and journalists and the conclusions were the same. We can still develop world class athletes, but that work can wait. Dr. Ron Turker recently wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times that parents have abdicated their rights and duties to the big business that youth sports has become. As a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, he has seen too many times kids coming in with phantom injuries and when pressed, the kids admit that they really just want a break. On the flip side is the physical toll and again, too many times, Dr. Tucker has seen teenage athletes face career ending injuries.

Heart of Los Angeles looks to address this issue from a number of vantage points. Loren Rubin, HOLA’s Director of Leadership and Summer Programs, has incorporated the Play for Peace platform across all of our programs. Play for Peace brings together children, youth and organizations from communities in conflict, using cooperative play to create laughter, compassion and peace. Several of our high school students have been trained to act as facilitators and help Loren lead activities with HOLA youth. We also encourage periods of unstructured free play and for the kids to cooperatively problem solve. As a coach and former Division 1 athlete, my hope is that HOLA is developing kids with great character, kids who are life long learners and who are coachable. Let’s be patient while our kids are learning to be creative and while their changing bodies develop through puberty. Let’s let the kids be kids and avoid serious physical injuries (no more Tommy John surgeries for adolescents) and early emotional and mental burnout. When the kids are older and physically stronger, we can then entrust them to our coaches and the organized sports world. I have no doubt that this approach will lead to the development of more athletes and better yet, more creative and healthier ones, both mentally and physically.


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