Inside Michigan State University's renowned College of Education is the equally renowned Department of Kinesiology, and within the department is the acclaimed Institute for the Study of Youth Sports.
Dan Gould has recently retired as director of the institute. He’s a professor of kinesiology and the emeritus Gwendolyn Norrell Professor of Youth Sport and Student Athlete Well Being. Karin Pfeiffer is also a professor of kinesiology and is assuming the role of director from Dan.
Gould talks about the institute being born out of the state legislature in 1978.
“The Institute for the Study of Youth Sports was started by the state legislature,” says Gould. “Our mission is to scientifically study sport for children and youth and then to disseminate that information to the larger sporting public to make sports better for kids.”
Pfeiffer is an exercise physiologist.
“My research has focused on two major lines,” Pfeiffer says. “One is how we assess how physically active people are, and the other is interventions to increase physical activity. Most of my work has been done with children and adolescents.”
“A lot of my research is in the area of sports psychology and the psychology of coaching,” Gould continues. “I have done a lot of programmatic work on what makes an effective coach. We've really focused on life skills like psychosocial skills and characteristics like teamwork, goal setting, and work ethic that kids can learn through sport and then hopefully - they're called life skills - transfer those skills to other aspects of their life. I was a wrestler through high school and college, and I learned to work hard. Did that transfer to other avenues like being a professor?”
What are some of the key and current topics that the institute grapples with?
“One is the equity issue,” says Gould. “There are really two youth sports in America. There are the middle-class youth sports where the kids go to sports camps or they're on travel teams and pay for play, and then there's either rural kids or urban kids who have fewer opportunities. How do we bridge that divide? That's one. How do we further increase quality coaching? I think that's a big one that we want to work on going forward. Youth sports has become very professionalized. Ninety percent of kids are never going to play in college. How do we have them fall in love with physical activity?”
“Even though we could view sports as a means to achieve physical activity recommendations, we don't always have the best-case scenario in terms of what's happening at practice,” Pfeiffer says. “And I think we have a couple of issues going on where parents are dropping children off at practice thinking, ‘Okay, they're going to get a lot of physical activity during this time,’ and most people would think ‘Yep, that's what's going to happen.’ But in the end, if you examine what's occurring during some of these practices, there's a fair amount of standing around.
“We've lost that notion of free play, which is also a very important element of development. And I think the other is just what is happening in these practices, not just with are they getting enough physical activity while they're there. But then the skill development piece of that as well, and are they really getting the skills they need to develop fully as an athlete? Whatever happened to intramural sports? Why is it that we have to be the cream of the crop or you just drop out of sport? Why can't we have this whole piece of sports for fun? Maybe you're not the best one out there but you just want to play. People often fall out of love with sport after they don't make an elite team, and that's not how it should be. Everybody should be playing for fun. Fun is the reason why people do a lot of things, including physical activity including sports.”
What’s your advice for parents and coaches?
“We know people do things because it's fun,” says Gould. “And people do things when they feel competent. If you don't feel competent, you're highly likely to drop out. Now, competent doesn't mean that I play on the MSU football team. Competence means I swam today for fitness. Well, I can swim. I can do the strokes. If you couldn't do that, it's not going to be very much fun. We want to create an enjoyable atmosphere of fun, but it's not just an unorganized rolling out of the ball and laughing. We're also teaching kids fundamental skills.
“How do we develop kids’ competence relative to their own abilities so they can go out and have fun doing it? And then also it's not just the physical side. It's a coach who's having fun and being supportive and encouraging.”
“I think sometimes what happens, not necessarily in the older age groups but in some of the younger age groups, you just have a parent who, thank goodness, does volunteer but doesn't necessarily have a whole lot of background in coaching,” Pfeiffer continues. “And that's okay, but it would be great if we can help that parent a little bit by teaching them some of these kinds of characteristics of having fun and developing skills.”
“It doesn't have to be really complicated if you're a parent or a youth coach,” Gould says. “There's something called self-determination theory. All people and all kids have three basic needs. One is relatedness; you want to belong to something. Another is competence; you want to feel like you're getting better. And the other is autonomy or choice. I’d like to get every coach to go to a practice and say, ‘What did I do today to make the kids have better relatedness? What can I do to increase competence by having each kid set a goal? What can I do for autonomy?’
“Our colleague Jim Pivarnik studied exercise in pregnancy, and I always remember some of the research his students did that showed that physically active pregnant women have kids who are more physically active later in life. Be physically active with your kids. Have some balls in the backyard or a little swimming pool. Do things with your kids outdoors. Buy balls and bats and your kids will more likely develop these skills if they have an environment that breeds that.”
“There is a lot of optimism just with the interest in sport and how many people are into it and want to participate, and I think that's good, and I think we can foster that even better than what we do now,” Pfeiffer adds. “Mental health has really risen to the top as an important issue for us to address. Safety always needs to be at the top of our minds. We need to pull ourselves back from this almost professionalization of youth sport. We need a little bit of a reset in terms of that. I don't know how we're going to do it, but we need to.”
“As I retire, I'm excited about how much more we know,” says Gould. “I was going through some old materials when I cleaned my office and there were hardly any books. Now, there's so much information coming out that we know a lot more about how to help people in these endeavors than we did when we started out; that's a real positive.
“Concerns? The U.S. has fallen behind other countries in the world because we have no government agency that looks after sport - a research dissemination system to get parents information funded by the government. Here, we have to backdoor it through other agencies. Now, that's my concern. The good thing is Health and Human Services, Karin's been involved in some of this, are trying to get more involved and do some things.
“The Safe Sport Act is a good example. The government passed that but didn't fund it enough so they can't keep up with all the cases. I'm not a huge fan of big government, but at the same time, our government probably needs to get involved. We need a policy on youth in general and on youth sport. To me, there's opportunity there. But it's a concern.
“The quality of coaching is so important. You don’t gain all the life skills sports can teach from just being in sports. You catch it from having a really good coach who is intentional about what she's teaching and talks about teamwork and then talks about how that would transfer to the classroom or work environment.”
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