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Game On Book Review

Game On

I just finished reading Tom Farray’s Game On. Needless to say, it was an eye opener both as an educator/coach and as a parent. As I was reading I would say to myself, “Yup, that’s me”, or “I did that”.
The basic focus of the book is on our obsession w/ youth sports in the last 15 years and how this has adversely affected our children. Farray explores the rise in tournaments, national championships, and year-round commitments to sports and what effect this new obsession is having on our children. Each chapter in the book is dedicated to that corresponding age where children are pushed into sports. For example, Chapter One deals w/ the rise in parents using in vitro services that are designed to increase the chance of better athletic genes in your baby.

Several ideas/concepts were brought out:
1) Is it genetic or environment? People saw what Earl Woods did w/ Tiger and now every parent believes that with the proper push, that their child will also become the top player in their sport. Therefore, we’re seeing parents signing up their two and three year olds for the local soccer leagues. Parents are trying to prepare their kids at the earliest possible age in hopes of creating their own little Tiger. Now some sports are better the earlier you start. The main example was golf that it’s easier to start younger players w/ the proper swing than it is if you started them later…in their teens. There’s a fear that if you don’t start early, someone else surely is and your kid will be left behind.
2) Not only are parents signing kids up into these structured leagues, but there are now more games and the seasons get longer. Parents feel that it’s advantageous for their 5-6 year olds to be playing 4 games a week. They feel that if they don’t, their child won’t be good enough to be picked for the travel/elite team when their child turns 7. And if they’re not on that team when they’re 7, those kids will be left behind and never be able to play HS or college ball… at least that’s their rationale.
3) According to the research, the children who had birthdays earlier in the year were more likely to be on the Elite travel teams and that those players who had later birthdays were generally left off those teams and eventually left that sport. Our youth sports rewards the early bloomers and those that have birthdays in the first few months of the year…oldest for that age group.
4) Signing them up at an early age is not the problem… it’s the sudden obsession w/ having these 3-4 year olds playing competitive games to the screams and delights of their parents. Farray looks at what other countries are doing w/ youth sports and notes that most of these are not doing any competitive sports until 12-13 years old. Up until then, the focus is on training skill acquisition, creativity and making sure it’s fun. Compare that to the US system or regimented drills and playing competitive games when players don’t have the necessary skills and what we have is pressured situations dominated by over zealous parents.
I’m seeing this right now coaching my 12 year old in girl’s basketball. We have two games/week with no practices. It’s 5 on 5… and it’s a zoo! Are they learning anything? Probably not. What would be better is if we formed a 3v3 league and they just played w/ limited adult interruption. They would get more touches, understand spacing, cutting… all those skills that they need to have to be able to play at the next level. But, imagine the parents when I propose this idea? “Everyone else is playing 5v5, our kids will be at a disadvantage.” Our culture/environment suggests that playing more games is the key to better players whereas the rest of the world realizes that is not true.
5) Parents feel that they have to attend all of their children’s games to “support” their child. What they are really doing is evaluating their children’s performance. Kids pick up on this and realize that they will be critiqued on their performance. Parents feel that this is how to “support” their kid. This creates an environment of pressure and anxiety that takes the fun out of playing. It now becomes parent-focused rather than kid-focused.
6) Farrey also gets into the effect of budget cuts on municipal parks and recreation…usually the first item that gets chopped. As result, there are not as many places for kids to play. There are not as many leagues and options for kids to play. As a result, we see that kids are not playing sports, increasing the country’s childhood obesity rate. He applauds the efforts of Carmelo Anthony in establishing the rec center in Baltimore and suggests that the private sector might be the ones to fill the void left by bankrupt parks and recreation departments.
7) My favorite part of the book was Farrey’s look at some of the governing bodies of sports…including the NCAA, US Olympic Committee and AAU. Farrey asks what if we took away all athletic scholarships and colleges gave away $ based on need. What effect would that have on our youth-sports obsessed culture? And if you want to see an organization just get raked over the coals, read Farrey’s sections on Bobby Dodd and AAU Basketball.

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