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At first it sounds like one of those federally funded boondoggles that former senator William Proxmire used to honor with his Golden Fleece Awards. A 1991 study by the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports (YSI) reached the astonishing conclusion that the No. 1 reason 10-year-olds play sports is to have fun. Yet what's revealing is the reasons kids were less likely to cite. "For the challenge of competition" and "for the excitement of competition" placed eighth and 10th, respectively, behind such motivations as "to do something I'm good at," "to get exercise," "to learn new skills" and "to play as part of a team." (YSI hasn't updated the study, partly because it believes if one were done today, it would produce similar results.)
When 10-year-olds speak, they give those findings voice. "I play a lot of sports, but I don't excel," says Andrew Somerville of Kensington, Md. "I can admit that I stink because I'm good at other things, and that's just me."
"Swimming's the greatest sport they ever thought up," says Elizabeth Beisel of North Kingstown, R.I., who holds seven national records for 10-year-olds but also surfs, golfs, acts and plays the violin and the piano (box, below). "I definitely don't swim because I want to win. I know I'm not going to win every race."
"Playing beats watching," says Jack Grodahl of Portland, "and I love getting better. When I was eight, I couldn't really dribble a basketball that good. I had to look down or something. I could barely get it to the hoop." That was only two years ago—indeed, most kids begin playing organized sports around ages eight or nine—and that sort of newfound competency can be enormously exciting and all that's necessary to keep a child hooked.
At the same time, over the past decade municipal recreation leagues have been threatened by the rise of travel teams—essentially the best players who take on their counterparts from around the region, state and nation. Talk to the parents and kids involved in travel-team sports, and they're more likely to cite challenge and competition as their primary motivations to play. "Kids want to play with and against kids who are about the same skill level," says Jim Thompson, founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA), a growing movement to certify coaches and bring rabid parents to heel. "That's good. The downside is that parents are more invested in it. Coaches tend to be more professional. So it's easier for the win-at-all-costs mentality to take over."
Don DeDonatis is CEO of the U.S. Specialty Sports Association, which invited more than 370 teams of 10-year-olds to its three-tier World Series this summer. He believes his organization is serving young baseball players by offering three skill levels within each age group and by giving more advanced players a chance to opt out of their rec leagues. "I've coached rec ball and had lads who didn't want to be there," says DeDonatis. "Dad signed him up because he wanted Sonny to play baseball. The kid was looking at the sky and picking at grass."
In the world of 10-year-old travel-team baseball, there are two schools: muscle ball, in which a team is stocked with unusually mature kids who can hit and throw with power; and small ball, where teams whittle out victories with polished fundamentals. The North Alabama Vipers, a 10-and-under team that finished third at this summer's USSSA Major World Series in Henderson, Nev., play classic small ball. They've mastered cutoffs, 6-4-3 double plays and bunt defense. This apparent riposte to those who believe sequential skills are beyond the cognitive ken of 10-year-olds is the result of the V-I-P-E-R words emblazoned on the back of a team T-shirt: VERY INTENSE PRACTICE EQUALS RESULTS. "Bottom line, if you teach it, they'll learn it," says team founder Ricky Diehl. But listen to Diehl a little more, and it's clear that he keeps his kids on a tight tether. "What a 10-year-old won't grasp is good pitches to hit, when to steal and so on. He'll swing at a curveball on a 3-and-0 count." That's why Vipers coaches call every play, even every pitch, from the dugout.
"I know a lot of people don't like what we're doing," says Carey Moseley, whose son, Cooper, has spent more than five hours in a car to commute round-trip from the family home in Montgomery, Ala., to play with the Vipers, who are based in Huntsville (box, page 63). "But this isn't for everybody. Bob Bigelow [the author and former NBA player] thinks kids at age 10 don't want to win. Well, don't tell that to kids on this team. I'm not a criminal because I allow my son to do this."
Certainly if adults reserve for themselves the right to pick lineups and dictate tactics, 10-year-olds will win and win quickly. But if kids get that authority, over time they may wind up even better. "How do you make good decisions?" asks the PCA's Jim Thompson. "By making bad decisions and learning from them. If the coach is making all the decisions, how can you learn?"
Whether a 10-year-old wants most to win or to have fun, adults shouldn't lose sight of what the child is hoping to get from sports. Some 40 million school-age kids play some sport, yet by 13 almost one-third of those who were active as 10-year-olds will have dropped out. "Of the friends I played soccer with at 10, pretty much half quit by 11," says Ethan Machurat of Amesbury, Mass., who's now 13 and still plays soccer, baseball and basketball, and has taken up lacrosse. "A lot just skateboard and don't do anything else."