Just imagine if people talked about sports the same way they talk about education…

In the nineteenth century, when modern sports were invented, athletics served as an extension of the factories in which many of their players worked, reinforcing hierarchies and training athletes to be obedient and “play by the rules.” Today’s sports leagues are heirs to that model. Unsurprisingly, for many athletes, playing a sport has become a source of stress rather than one of joy.

Nothing could be more natural than the desire to run and play, but this inborn tendency is all too frequently destroyed by a system that emphasizes rote drilling of individual skills at the expense of more authentic forms of participation.

A new, more progressive model is clearly required, one that harnesses players’ innate love of games and movement, and that places players rather than sports at the center of the athletic process.

Instead of forcing players to abide by a narrow set of rules, rendering athletes passive and stifling their natural creativity, athletic programs should abandon the traditional one-size-fits all approach and strive to develop the whole player.

Thus, coaches should act as facilitators, dividing teams into smaller groups so that players can learn from one another and avoiding heavy-handed tactics such as directly instructing players in how to stand, kick, or dribble. And rather than repeatedly drilling low-level skills such as throwing and catching, a surefire way to stifle players’ natural love of games, coaches should create opportunities for players to develop higher-order performance skills. For example, a league could stage a mock Olympics, with each team dressing up in the uniform worn by the athletes of a specific country. Groups of players could research different aspects of their adopted teams and create posters presenting what they have learned. 

Just as importantly, coaches should avoid treating teams as a single entity, or talking to players in a harsh or critical manner. Rather, they should adapt their coaching to athletes’ unique playing styles and seek to inspire each team member as an individual. When players commit penalties or other violations, coaches should not impose punishments such as “time outs” but should seek to understand the motivating forces behind players’ behavior. 

Today, every baseball team across the entire country is forced to abide by a single set of regulations, as is every basketball team, soccer team, lacrosse team, and so on. What a boring way to play! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if players were instead encouraged to take an active role in constructing their own games? 

If every team were responsible for inventing its own rules, for example, different teams could learn from one another, and players’ ability to innovate, think critically, and solve problems creatively would be vastly improved. Football players could learn from basketball players, and field hockey players could learn from sprinters, erasing artificial divisions between sports and facilitating players’ ability to communicate with other types of athletes. And rather competing against one another, teams could instead collaborate with one another in order to achieve common goals.

Furthermore, the ceaseless ranking of players and teams, as well as the awarding of medals and trophies, creates perverse incentives that are frequently damaging to players’ self-esteem. This model of athletics is not only often developmentally inappropriate, but it normalizes competition, substituting rewards for intrinsic motivation.

If players were no longer ranked or measured according to standardized criteria set out by bodies such as the NBA, the NFL, and the United States Tennis Association, they would be free to develop their true athletic potential. Instead of passively relying on external metrics such as passes, kicks, and goals for validation, they would be inspired to take ownership of their personal athletic development.

Becoming an athlete involves so much more than rigidly adhering to a group rules laid out by experts who often do not understand the relevance of sports to players’ lives. When players are encouraged to explore their unique passions and acquire a deep sense of themselves as athletes, everyone benefits. It is high time for athletics to be brought into the twenty-first century.