Many kids do not find attachment or meaning in their classrooms, but thrive in other situations where their interests and talents intersect. Sports are a particularly popular space for such out-of-school learning.
Much has been written recently about corruption and scandal associated with sports – particularly in basketball. But if you have not recently (or ever) attended a youth basketball tournament, you might take note that the “on-the-ground action” at these tournaments is bustling, lively, and reflective of some bigger trends in youth sports in the US. Before the pandemic, I traveled to the “National Summer Classic” in Libertyville, IL (a Chicago-area suburb) and, below, offer several reflections.
1. Some people may perceive “AAU basketball” to be a particular league of sorts, but the youth basketball scene is actually quite diverse across a number of variables. Notably, most youth basketball tournaments are not reserved for “elite” players.
Much of the corruption and scandal associated with youth basketball takes place on the “shoe circuits.” Nike, Adidas, Under Armour and other large companies sponsor their own teams and tournaments. These circuits are comprised of the most talented high school players in the country and they are big-money endeavors.
Notwithstanding the attention that these circuits draw from college coaches and the media, they represent only a small fraction of the tournaments that are held each spring and summer. Hundreds of other tournaments take place in community sites throughout the US. These tournaments often do include very talented athletes, but also athletes who are less skilled and not angling for college scholarships.
2. Large youth basketball tournament sites are not like the ones in which you grew up playing (at least if you’re old like me). Massive, state of the art sports megaplexes with six, eight, or more full courts can host large events. Many of the newest facilities are designed for multiple purposes – they include fitness centers, food and beverage services, and multiple sport spaces.
The Libertyville Sports Complex, while not one of the newer or shinier facilities in the Midwest, includes two large indoor artificial turf fields for soccer, lacrosse, football, and baseball, eight full basketball courts (which can also be used for volleyball and fustsal), a 30 foot climbing mountain, and multiple party rooms. Outside, the Sports Complex has a golf space and softball field. The cramped old gyms where most youth tournaments were held in years past are not even comparable to the Libertyville site and others like it.
3. Large youth basketball tournaments bring diverse groups of people together. An evolving, complex social story in the youth basketball world is not well understood by many people on the outside of the game.
On a positive note, the unifying social force of youth basketball should not be overlooked. Each weekend, youth basketball tournaments, like the National Classic in Chicago, bring diverse groups together around a common interest. Where else in the US can you see people from different ages, genders, races, and geographies united with common focus? Where else can we see lessons of teamwork, competition, winning, and losing applied with such vigor and enthusiasm? In a country where strong forces of division abound, we should recognize the ways and extents to which sports bring together people who might not otherwise interact.
4. As youth sports get more and more expensive, we are seeing diminishing access to opportunity for many families. Playing travel sports – even on teams that are not “elite” level – includes not only baseline fees associated with being on the team (for gym time, uniforms, tournament entry fees, etc.), but, increasingly, costs associated with hotels, travel, shoes, food, and medical care. Conservatively, cumulative fees for one youth basketball travel season are more than $2000. Such expenses are not feasible for many families.
Some attention has been devoted to the competitive effects of diminished access to youth sports (e.g., the proportion of college athletic scholarships awarded to low-income families is decreasing), but less focus has been paid to other effects on children who cannot participate. What are the relational and psychological effects of not being able to participate in sports? What alternative opportunities are available to kids? What are the broader social outcomes upon communities where few kids can afford to seriously pursue their sports?
5. Parents are deeply invested in youth sports. Competitive youth programs require entire families to sacrifice time, money, and other commitments for their children’s athletic pursuits. Recent research indicates that, in many cases, families’ financial investments in youth sports may be related to higher levels of parental pressure and expectation. More than they did in traditional community programs of the past, parents tend to desire concrete returns on their travel sports investments. And parental expectations do not diminish upon their children’s successful selection for competitive high school teams or even, for the few who reach such heights, when their children are awarded Division 1 scholarships.
6. Coaches shape the basketball experiences for their teams. Parents, referees, tournament directors, and other adults fill the gyms of most events, but coaches design what the teams do and how they do it. Coaches establish a team culture – whether for the good or for the bad – that affects the kids’ performance on the court. They are also central to what life lessons are shared and even how parents behave.
Different from the elite, professionalized teams that are sponsored by shoe companies, most “regular” youth teams are coached by volunteers. These volunteers vary greatly in basketball knowledge and coaching ability, but they largely appear be committed to helping the kids. So if you read the horror stories about abusive youth coaches, know that there are many more out there who are positive forces in kids’ lives over the course of multiple years.
7. Youth basketball tournaments compress multiple games into each day of action. Teams can play up to eight games over a three-day period. I observed a team of eleven year old boys finish their third game of the day at 10:30pm on a Saturday night and then have to wake up and play three more games (beginning at 9am) on Sunday.
Each time I watch a team’s third or fourth game of the day – especially when it’s late at night – the kids’ fatigue is obvious. Their risk of injury is clear. In many instances these multiple games are not played on wood floors that are relatively forgiving on the kids’ joints, but on harder tile or rubberized floors. All of these factors -- the multiple games compressed into short periods of time, the late nights and early mornings, and the hard playing surfaces -- can contribute to overuse injuries. Both in the short and longer terms, kids' athletic futures are jeopardized.
8. Youth basketball is still really fun. We read so much about the problems with youth sports – several of which I’ve described here. But a weekend at a youth tournament like the one in Libertyville reveals a largely joyful experience. The Sport Complex brimmed with cheers, laughter, and excitement. And the fun continued when the teams returned to their hotels. I watched kids swimming together and parents socializing in lobbies. I saw families going out to eat and kids playing mini-golf. Enduring relational bonds were developed and life-long memories were forged. It’s no surprise to me that many of the college athletes that I now work with refer to their youth sports experiences as the most fun they ever had.
So what can be learned from a weekend at a youth basketball tournament? First, we can see many benefits for kids and families. They develop strong relationships, learn to work hard as a team, and have more fun than one could imagine. We can see that youth basketball brings together people from all walks of life -- it is a uniting force. We see adults -- parents, coaches, referees -- have steady, purposeful interaction with children. We see teaching, learning, and, even more than in many schools, engagement.
At the same time, there is room for improvement. We need to ensure that high quality youth sporting opportunities are affordable and accessible to a wider swath of children. Currently, it is too expensive. And we need to take a cue from the many positive coaches that were in action in Libertyville -- those who seek positive youth development more than wins and losses. These coaches understand the substantive value they can have on many lives and their lessons should be spread. Finally, we need to be sure to take better action to prevent overuse injuries among young athletes. Weekend tournaments of six, seven, and eight games per team are becoming the norm. Across a brief season of 7-10 tournaments, young athletes can play 60 or more games, leaving them at heightened risk of stress-related injury for years to come.