Competitiveness in Youth Sports
Do a quick search of “toxic culture in youth sports” and you’ll find lots of good articles, like this one from US News and World Report.
Our modern society that promotes growth and achievement at all costs continues to push its unhealthy competitive values onto our kids. Not only do we see this in academic settings, but also in social settings and even more so in youth sports, including figure skating.
Just as weight bearing exercise makes our bones stronger, so does a small amount of competition strengthen character. Too much stress, though, and both our bones and souls can end up broken.
Healthy competition fosters creativity and excitement, teaches grit, and can boost confidence.
But when the pressure is so high that parents, coaches, and athletes focus on achievement and winning over fostering true friendships, loving the game, and enjoying the growth process, then everyone loses—most of all, our kids.
This is not new information. Especially since COVID, athletes and coaches have been speaking out about the harms of toxic competitive culture on our mental and physical health.
Nevertheless, the problem is as rampant as ever.
Just this week a football coach friend posted a picture of national basketball rankings for 4th graders. And today I saw this article about nationally ranked 2nd grade twins and their personal brand as basketball stars.
What does this have to do with figure skating?
Figure skating was a trailblazer of the current youth sports industry. Most of its biggest female stars throughout history have been young teenagers. 3-time Olympic champ and 10-time world champ Sonja Henie competed in her first Olympics at age 11 in 1924 and won her first Olympics at age 15 in 1928.
And while figure skating no longer holds “national championships” for skaters at the developmental levels of Juvenile and Intermediate, it still ranks skaters by posting their competition scores highest to lowest. All skaters in a national series—Excel, Solo Dance, and National Qualifying Series—are ranked in this way. Some are as young as 7 and 8 years old.
National events in figure skating—where certain regions have fewer rinks and lower numbers of participation—are important for the development of our sport, so I’m not arguing that the series rankings should be abolished. If there is a qualifying event or series, then transparency is absolutely crucial to the integrity of our sport.
It’s what parents, coaches, and skater do with the ranking information that matters.
Author // the skating yogi
My name is Sarah Neal. I have been immersed in the world of figure skating for over four decades. I have seen firsthand the abuse that happens at the higher levels of our sport and experienced how that trickles down into unhealthy training practices and habits at the grassroots. I have seen this play out in the operations of the very institutions that control our sport. Whether for a profession or hobby, pursuing skating should be a joyful, rewarding process, an opportunity for athletic and personal growth, and a place to build lasting friendships.