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For years, Fred Bowen has written a column for young readers on youth sports topics for the Washington PostHe’s also a successful children’s sports book author. If you have young athletes in your family, or work with them, it’s well worth introducing them to Bowen’s work.

Recently, Bowen wrote a column that departed a little from his typical topics. He wrote about the need to teach our kids more lessons about democracy and how government works, as well as creating opportunities to practise those lessons. He believes sports present a great chance to do both those things.

I agree. We certainly could use more “disorganized” youth sports (as Bowen calls pickup games) and less adult-driven organized youth sports. One thing’s for sure, if you study youth sports in North America in any depth, you soon realize there’s too much adult in youth sports.

Disorganized sports (pickup or freelance, if you prefer) help kids learn to think for themselves. They develop problem-solving, leadership and teamwork skills, things many countries could certainly use more of today.

At their best, sports are a place where kids can learn to be part of a team and work within a group,” writes Bowen. “In other words, sports can be a place where kids can learn about democracy.”

I’d venture to say that most young athletes today have never even organized their own pickup games. Their sports experiences are driven solely by adults, adults who tell them when to get into the minivan for a practice, game or personal training session. Often, parents will drive their kids an hour or more to play on a club travel team in which none of the kids involved live in the same neighbourhood.

Kids organizing baseball, basketball or touch football games in a nearby park – via a phone tree they develop on their own – is a thing of the past. Carefree summers in which friends get together to play ball in a nearby field, as in the movie The Sandlot, are merely nostalgic notions today.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

”I think kids would learn more about democracy if they played disorganized sports,” writes Bowen.

I do, too.

“Disorganized sports are games such as pickup basketball or soccer matches where sweatshirts on the ground are goals,” continues Bowen. “Games where kids – not parents or coaches – pick the teams, make the rules and call their own fouls.”

I bet the fun quotient would go way up for kids if they could participate in more disorganized sports. And we’d have fewer burnout cases.

The alternative is more cases of stolen youth like that of Olivia Moultrie. Moultrie is a 13-year-old soccer player of great skill. She recently signed a multiyear endorsement deal with Nike, giving up the soccer scholarship she accepted from the University of North Carolina when she was only 11-years-old.

Unfortunately, stories like Moultrie’s will encourage adults to get involved in youth sports activities to an even higher degree. The result will be more burnout cases and overuse injuries due to year-round sport specialization.

Allowing and encouraging more freelance play and pickup games doesn’t mean you’re giving up on helping kids become the best they can be in a given sport. In fact, helping to ensure that sports remain fun for kids is also the best way to enhance the chances of long-term success.

If adults make sports fun for kids, there’s a good chance they’ll develop a passion for the game. When that happens, they’ll be intrinsically motivated to succeed, and won’t need coaches or parents constantly pushing them and dragging them to practice.

As sociologist Alfie Kohn notes, “Nothing, according to the research, predicts excellence like finding the task fun.”

All of this doesn’t mean we have to junk organized youth sports. It just means looking for creative ways that kids can occasionally organize their own sports activities.

For example, organized youth sports coaches could let their kids create the day’s practice plan a few times every month. Or, periodically, they could let their young athletes plan scrimmage days, including letting them pick teams, make the rules and solve their own problems.

It might just result in better athletes and, more importantly, better citizens going forward.

Ken Reed is sports policy director for League of Fans (, a sports reform project. He is the author of The Sports Reformers, Ego vs. Soul in Sports, and How We Can Save Sports.

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