They used to be a staple in the lives of American children. Get a group of kids together, grab a ball, and go play. It was a sanctuary of sport where meddling parents or coaches had no say. But as organized youth sports have become more time-intensive, and digital devices like iPads and Xboxes have made the indoors more appealing, pick-up games have largely disappeared.
“Youth sports culture has changed dramatically over the past 40 years. It is less common today to see a group of young children congregate in a neighborhood to play a ‘pick-up’ game without any adult influence. The norm has become for children and adolescents to participate in organized sports driven by coaches and parents, often with different goals for the game than its young participants,” reads a 2016 report on youth athletes in the journal Pediatrics.
The demise of pick-up games is a real shame, as it’s difficult to overstate how many benefits these type of contests offer for young people. No matter the sport, the nature of pick-up games allow for the natural development of athleticism, fitness, competitiveness, teamwork skills, communication skills and more.
The competition will take care of itself. Most kids want to win no matter what or where they play. They want to beat their friends, classmates, siblings, etc. It’s not mean-spirited, it’s just good, healthy, fun competition.
“(My childhood pick-up football games) were really competitive—probably more competitive then half the stuff you see on the field,” says Arizona Cardinals offensive lineman Mason Cole. A childhood filled with competitive pick-up games is a commonality we notice in many of the professional athletes we interview, from Drew Brees to LeBron James.
As a competitive outlet, pick-up sports lack the added pressure coaches, parents and institutions often bring to organized sports. A loss or poor performance doesn’t result in the child being yelled at or shamed by authority figures. This translates to an experience that’s more free and more fun for children. And “more fun” matters. It’s no exaggeration to say a lack of fun may be the biggest problem in the modern youth sports ecosystem. A poll from the National Alliance of Youth Sports found that 70 percent of U.S. kids stop playing organized sports by the age of 13, citing “not having fun anymore” as the most common reason.
Pick-up sports give kids a chance to just be kids without having to worry about failure or disappointing others, and stay active while doing so. The simple fact that pick-up sports keep children active is a huge benefit, as CDC data shows 1 in 5 children and young people now qualify as obese. Most pick-up games consist of nothing but play—there’s no sitting on the bench, there’s no standing around waiting for others to go through a drill, there’s no listening to coaches try to explain strategy or fundamentals. There’s just play. That’s exactly the type of activity our young people need more of, as organized youth sports offer less exercise than you might expect. In fact, a 2017 study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences found that children only spend about 30 percent of their organized sport practice time engaged in moderate-to-vigorous exercise. So even if a kid has an hour-long practice, they’re still likely 40 minutes short of the 60 minutes of daily moderate to vigorous exercise most experts recommend. This is where pick-up games and unstructured play can quickly make up that gap.
“Pick-up games and self practice/play is the epitome of skill acquisition and broad athletic development. Pick-up games are not supervised by a coach. So each participant has much more free expression of movement and less stress of trying to ‘do it right’ according to what the coach believes. There is the opportunity to experiment and develop one’s own natural style without the fear of screwing up,” Jeremy Frisch, owner of Achieve Performance Training in Clinton, Massachusetts, wrote in a recent social media post. “As one practices and plays, the body adapts naturally and the participant will be able to play longer and longer and rest shorter and shorter…improving fitness naturally.”
The diversity present in pick-up games brings about its own slew of benefits. Kids learn how to play with and against a range of athletes of all different ages, sizes and ability levels. This helps them learn how to dynamically adapt their play and behavior to best suit their teammates and their competition. It’s a skill that has benefit far beyond the realm of sports. Then the diversity of the games themselves—different sports, different balls, different playing surfaces, different sized fields, different rules, etc.—are further bonuses. The more diverse we can make sports for our kids, the more all-around athleticism they’ll develop and the more fun they’ll have. Based off the strong connection between early sports specialization (and the training usually associated with it) and overuse injuries, participating in pick-up sports can also help kids stay healthy and pain-free.
A study from the University of Colorado found that children who spent more time in less structured activities (such as pick-up games) develop better “self-directed executive function.” This skill largely centers around being able to set your own goals and take action on them. A 2014 University of Texas study found that college students who’d spent their childhoods splitting equal amounts of time between organized and unstructured sports were more creative than peers who devoted the majority of their play time to the former. There’s also a bevy of research showing the increased amount of exercise that can come via participation in pick-up games results in better performance inside the classroom.
If their child reaping all of these benefits wasn’t enough to convince a parent of the importance of pick-up games, how about the fact that pick-up games require zero fees and zero time commitment on their end? As organized youth sports have become increasingly laborious for all involved, parents have also felt the effects. A 2013 survey by i9 Sports of 400 moms found that over 50 percent believed their child’s participation in organized sports added stress to their life and the lives of their family. Simply cutting down on specialized training sessions or having a child play in a recreational league instead of travel ball will lead to a more stress-free experience for all and give the kid more time for unstructured play.
What can we do to address this issue? Encouraging children to play pick-up games and providing them with the equipment to do so (which is usually just a ball) is a great start. Children also need the time to participate in pick-up games, so if you’re sending your 7-year-old to specialized baseball training lessons three times a week, perhaps you want to reconsider your priorities.
Youth sports coaches can also begin blocking off large chunks of practice time for “pick-up” style games, or encourage parents to drop their kids off early or allow them to stay late to give the kids extra time to play pick-up. The key is keeping interruption from parents and coaches to an absolute minimum during these games. A 2006 document Best Practices for Coaching in the United States released by the U.S. Soccer Federation encouraged youth coaches to be more hands-off in their approach. “Coaches can often be more helpful to a young player’s development by organizing less, saying less, and allowing the players to do more,” the authors write. “Be comfortable organizing a session that looks like pick-up soccer.”
Let’s not hinder the overall physical and mental development of our children by placing unrealistic expectations on them and trying to turn them into the “next big thing” before they’ve even had the chance to be a kid. Pick-up games teach skills that make better athletes and better people, and to ignore their benefit is to the detriment of our youth.