Thursday, March 15, 2012

Pickup Games Are Dead!

  If you read enough articles about youth sports, it's hard not to come away with the belief that pickup games are dead. That with the rise of technology, two paycheck families, and safety concerns, this form of sports play is a quaint relic of our past. Great back then, but impossible now.

The baby-boomers of course still prattle on about how they spent much of their youth outside playing neighborhood games of pickup baseball, football, and basketball; how their moms used to kick them outside, telling them not to come back until lunch or dinner. But modern parents and youth sports pundits know better. Society has changed, kids are different, and youth sports reflect this new reality.

The golden age of pickup is dead—forever rest in peace. Hail to the new age of organized sports!

Or so it would seem if you believe all you read.

But wait, not so fast... Like the elderly man being hauled away in that old Monty Python movie, The Holy Grail, the spirit of pickup play is crying out, “I’m not dead yet!”

Pickup games are alive—at least in the sport of basketball. Take a look at the short video clip below. (I shot this a few weekends ago at my local YMCA.)

As you can see, the gym was filled with kids (of all ages) playing pickup basketball. There was a full-court game going on and kids shooting and playing on the side baskets. Other kids were on the sidelines waiting to play; many of whom were talking with their friends.

Technology was also on the sideline. Cellphones were laying on the floor near the wall (and many other phones were undoubtedly tucked away in sweatshirt pockets). Occasionally, a kid picked up a phone and checked for new messages. But technology wasn't winning kids' mind share in this gym—self-directed play was. Face-to-face, physical interaction was crushing "social networking."

I've coached several of these kids and am aware that they play on local school teams. They get plenty of exercise and basketball. But as this video shows, they still want to play in a more social setting with their friends (many of whom do not play on the school teams). They want to have fun—but a different type of fun than they experience playing organized sports.

Other kids, who either don't have the ability or desire to play on the school teams, were also on the court and sidelines. They were having fun, socializing, and getting exercise.

So what's going on here?

It sure doesn't look to me that kids have given up on pickup games. So why do so many proclaim that self-directed play is largely a thing of the past?

The Culture of Self-Directed Play

Pickup basketball games are alive and well at my local YMCA for a couple of reasons. First, the Y provides kids with a central gathering place. It’s a semi-supervised, safe setting in which kids can play basketball the way they want and need. The YMCA also serves a second purpose—the culture of playing pickup basketball is passed on within its walls. Older kids watch adults play pickup games and younger kids watch teenagers do the same. This transfer of culture and experience fuels the pickup game engine.

Unfortunately, things have changed in other sports (and settings).

Neighborhood games in baseball, basketball, and football once had the same transfer mechanism at work. Younger kids played with older kids, emulating their play. The culture of pickup play in the "big three" sports was continually passed on within neighborhoods. But not so much anymore. Basketball rims are still plentiful in driveways and streets, but the kids are not.

Other team sports in the USA—such as soccer, hockey, and lacrosse—never shared this same rich tradition of neighborhood pickup play. Kids have always played these sports mainly within adult-run organized programs. (One might even argue that youth soccer's growth helped fuel the overall cultural movement in the USA toward organized sports play.)

But even in these sports, there's evidence that the culture of pickup play both exists and is beneficial to the development of young players. A 2010 article, Dempsey a poster child for casual play, describes how Clint Dempsey—one of the USA's best soccer players—developed his creative style by playing "street soccer" in his youth. Other articles have discussed how soccer excellence in countries such as Brazil stem from a wide base of youth who play pickup.

So despite a healthy culture of pickup basketball at my Y, there's little doubt that the traditional pickup culture in several sports has diminished over the last few decades. And in those sports (soccer) where pickup games always played a minor role, organized sports continue to be the preferred form of play. Considering the benefits of self-directed play, why has this happened?

Are Parents Limiting Opportunities for Self-Directed Play?

We've all heard about how our world has changed and how it's affected youth sports. Neighborhoods are more dangerous; stay-at-home moms are an anachronism; and many kids prefer their electronics to pickup games. To some degree, these observations are accurate. But are they the cause of self-directed play's reduced role in sports play?

In talking with a good friend who is the father of a young boy, he made an astute observation: "One of the biggest problems is that kids are over-scheduled. They don't play neighborhood pickup games because they're all off participating in organized activities. I would like my boy to play more pickup, but I also don't want him sitting around by himself playing games on his XBox."

Despite a neighborhood full of kids, no one is around to play. As a result, my friend feels he needs to sign his boy up for multiple organized sports.

Over-scheduling children in organized activities is but one example of how parental choice affects self-directed play. Other examples include limiting self-directed play because of safety concerns and choosing organized sports because the "experts" says this is the best developmental approach.

Whether these choices are rooted in parental fear, a misguided belief that all knowledge must come from adult instruction, or some other motivation, it is about choices. It's about how parental choices affect a child's opportunity to experience sports.

Are Today's Kids Different?

What about the kids themselves? Is this generation that different from past ones? The above video would suggest otherwise; it certainly seems that the core issue isn't kids who just want to play on their computers and XBox 360 all day.

Kids still want to play pickup in sports like basketball. And there's no inherent reason why they can't also do so in other team sports. Each sport has its small-sided games and other variations of play that can readily provide neighborhood fun for kids. Expensive equipment is not needed to engage in this type of sports play.

So let's put aside the mistaken notion that kids have inherently changed, that technology has corrupted their desire to play sports on their own, or that our "new" society has irrevocably changed what we can and should value.

What today's kids do need is more exposure to each sport's respective culture of pickup play. And just like kids from past generations, today's kids need the opportunity to engage in self-directed play.

Seek Solutions

As I've discussed in other articles and in my book, The Joy of Youth Sports, pickup games provide kids with many benefits—ones not easily replicated in an organized sports setting. Because of this, let's not casually toss pickup games on the scrap pile of history along with our VCRs and Walkmans. Let's instead seek some innovative solutions to strengthen this valuable form of play.

Technology can work for and against self-directed play. Although it may draw some kids away from playing sports, it also potentially provides answers to some of today's problems that inhibit self-directed play. Texting and social media provide kids with tools to more easily communicate and organize pickup games. For parents concerned about safety, mobile phones provide parents with easy access to their child and his or her location. Inexpensive cameras can also provide additional monitoring where needed. Consider how these technologies might be used to create safe play environments in neighborhoods with fewer stay-at-home parents. Like the semi-supervised setting of basketball at my YMCA, is there an opportunity to create similar settings for other sports?

Beyond technology, youth sports advocates and parents should step back and reevaluate their perspective on various issues related to children's play. Consider whether safety is a real issue in your child's play environment, or one driven more by our society's expanded awareness of every tragedy that occurs. Reevaluate the risk/benefit ratio and the best way to manage the risk component.

We also need to better understand why boys readily engage in pickup games, but girls do not. With the emphasis on getting more girls involved in sports via organized activities, have we distorted how they experience sports? And more importantly, have we distorted parents' view of how all children should play sports?

Pickup games are too important to let them casually fade into the night. Let's do all we can to create the best, most balanced opportunity for kids to enjoy sports.

Do you have any innovative ideas on how to promote self-directed play and pickup games?

Copyright © 2012 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved

The Joy of Youth Sports
If you enjoyed this article, you may like my book:
The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the best youth sports experience for your child (Amazon $8.95)

(Kindle Edition $2.99)

Copyright 2009-2012 Jeffrey S. Rhoads; All Rights Reserved


Onion said...

Great subject matter, I think about this often but have not gotten anywhere with it.. We don't live in a neighborhood and I worry about them missing out on all the interaction I had playing pick up games in my neighborhood growing up. Although, I talk to other parents who live in neighborhoods and they say they don't see any large groups of neighborhood kids playing there either.

buddydahamster said...

There have certainly been multiple changes to our kids schedules (electronics, organized sports activities) and interest, but we should try hard not to let this impact the importance of pick-up games. Basketball is a natural fit, as mentioned in your article, as all you need is a ball, court and hoop, as backyard football or soccer is in the same camp, given you only need a ball and a field. I'm a youth basketball coach and evaluated some players for our 8th grade spring-league team and was amazed at the different skill levels. When we threw 10 kids on the floor it was blatantly obvious which ones played pick-up ball as they just knew how to run, take it to the hoop and communicate in this fast paced setting. I would encourage neighborhoods to install sports courts so the kids can have a safe place to meet and run some games.

Neil Huang said...

I just wrote your book "the joy of youth sports" and I am a Chinese dad living in Shanghai. Same issue here in Shanghai reflected that kids are not available in pickup games as they even do not have time for so much organized activities. I think if some sport organizations could purposely organzied kids to play pickup games, for example, the kids are get-together in a basketball camp, but the camp offers them not only an organized training sessions, but also give kids free time to play by themselves. It might be helpful to develop kids self-directed capability.

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