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Minnesota a Model for Youth Sports

By Steve Mann, Minnesota Hockey, 12/13/18, 12:00PM CST

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It’s one of the best, if not the best, in the country because it puts a focus on local play opportunities for children. Making community rinks and sports accessible to as many kids as possible creates a unique environment.

Minnesota Hockey’s community-based model is occasionally highlighted as a gold standard for youth hockey, as it allows players to develop their skills close to home, keep costs down and limit travel.

According to Tom Farrey, one of the leading voices on youth sports culture in America and Executive Director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program, the Minnesota model is not just a great model for youth hockey but features concepts all youth sports could benefit from.

The Aspen Institute’s “Project Play” also extols these beliefs. The initiative, launched in 2013, “develops, applies and shares knowledge that helps build healthy communities through sports.” 

This year’s Project Play Summit took place in October in Washington D.C., and included such sports legends as Kobe Bryant, Tony Hawk, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and others. Some key trends and developments in the world of youth sports were also shared as part of the State of Play 2018 Report. Headlines included:

  • More kids are physically active but fewer are active to a healthy level: The number of children ages 6-12 who engaged in no physical activities dropped from 19.5% in 2014 to 17% in 2017. However, the number of kids who regularly participate in high calorie burning sports has decreased six consecutive years from 28.7% in 2011 to 23.9% in 2017.
  • Ice hockey is one of the fastest growing team sports. Among sports included in the research, hockey is the only sport to grow each year since 2008 and had the highest percentage increase from 2016 to 2017.
  • Multi-sport play shows progress: in 2017, children 6-12 played an average of 1.85 team sports; it’s the first improvement in four years.
  • Kids from lower-income homes face increasing barriers to participation: the majority of improvement in activity rates is coming from upper-income households who can better afford the growing fees associated with youth sports; over the past three years, fewer kids in households with incomes of less than $49,999 are participating in sports.

While the research shows that some progress has been made, in some areas, there is much work to be done to increase opportunity and enhance experience for young people in sports. We recently talked with Farrey about the community-based programming in Minnesota, the landscape of youth sports and long-term athlete development.

Minnesota Hockey: In your eyes, how does Minnesota’s community-based model compare to other models across the country?

Tom Farrey: It’s one of the best, if not the best, in the country because it puts a focus on local play opportunities for children. Making community rinks and sports accessible to as many kids as possible creates a unique environment. It flows from an investment in community-based sports, and you can see the results. That’s not to say that Minnesota is perfect, or immune to the youth sports-related pressures that face parents and communities across the country, but the state does a better job than most of controlling other influences.

Minnesota Hockey: Why does it work so well in Minnesota?

Farrey: Most other regions have local park and rec organizations of course, but there isn’t the widespread investment in infrastructure as there has been in Minnesota. Youth sports are a ‘hardware-software’ equation. Hardware is where are you going to play – are there sufficient fields, rinks and gyms to pursue recreational activity? Software is the programming itself – are your programs developmentally appropriate, are coaches trained, etc. It’s tough to get the software piece right if you don’t have the hardware piece right. Minnesota has made sure that it does that.

Minnesota Hockey: What are some of the benefits of the community-based model?

Farrey: If you ask kids what they want out of a sports experience, most will tell you that they want to have fun with their classmates, play for a coach that respects them and helps them get better at the game. Playing close to home allows kids to play with their friends more easily, and it’s generally less expensive than the travel team environment, where you play games two counties or two states away. This can be a challenge for lower-income families.

Minnesota Hockey: Why does staying close to home matter so much?

Farrey: There are psycho-social benefits that many kids get from feeling like they’re part of something larger than themselves. So participating in activities with their friends in a group and representing their community can provide those benefits. They’re also less lonely, and they’re more at the center of school culture because they have peers they are striving with. It’s easier to derive these benefits with your classmates than with a collection of kids from a 2-3 county area that you don’t see other than your travel or club team practices and games. If you are representing a geography that you are familiar with and that matters to you and people around you like family, friends and teachers, it can be a ton of fun.

Minnesota Hockey: How can we continue to foster a longer-term development view?

Farrey: It starts with a conversation that every parent needs to have with themselves: What are your long-term goals? What do you hope your child receives by being exposed to a positive sports experience? Do you hope they play in the Little League World Series or varsity team or is it just developing overall athleticism and a love of sport that creates healthy habits into adulthood? Start with the end in mind and work back from there. I think if parents do that they will avoid the “peak by Friday” mentality.

Minnesota Hockey: Does a long-term development view mean we shouldn’t celebrate achievement now?

Farrey: There’s nothing wrong with children competing. Even if adults don’t keep score, they’ve got it running in their heads. They want to win and that’s OK. The difference is once the game is over. Kids generally move on. It’s the parents who end up obsessing over the results and who won or lost the game. Children want to test themselves and compete but they don’t want to feel like because they lost they should feel terrible about it. Feeling terrible about performance actually inhibits performance.

Minnesota Hockey: What are the most important things for parents to do or focus on to ensure a positive sports experience?

Farrey in an Aspen videoIf you have a young child playing organized sports, you can increase the chances that they will have a rewarding and successful experience if you do two critically important things. Number one, unless you are the coach, don’t coach. Do not take ownership of their sports experience. Be the loving and supportive parent your child needs you to be. Number two, become an informed advocate for a strong and effective, child-centered sports experience for your child.