Are we ruining youth sports?
Let’s just cut to the chase: the answer to this question is yes! I played sports for most of my youth and into college. I fully understand the positive implications taking part in such activities can have on a child. Being able to win and lose gracefully, learning to be a productive team member, and conditioning my body to enjoy physical activity were all important life lessons I gained before adulthood. Many years later, as I became a parent to a child entering the world of athletics, I expected him to have the same fun-filled experience I had relished. I wasn’t prepared for the slap in the face of reality in regards to today’s sports culture.
Where we live, in a moderately-sized suburb, a child must practically be an expert in a sport to continue playing past third grade. This is also the age where teams begin to play competitively, meaning a draft takes place of the most talented children, and teams are ranked by ability. It is no longer possible to simply play on a team with neighborhood friends. There are fancy uniforms and a hefty bill if the parents or children would like to be a part of such a team, a for-profit endeavor. These children are NINE-YEARS-OLD.
Gone are the days of hand-me-down t-shirts used year after year. So much for a child deciding after second grade he or she would like to try out a new sport, because most likely they will already be very behind. If their athletic ability is slightly lacking, it becomes glaringly apparent they will probably not have a long tenure on a team. In the not-too-distant past, I remember when children played simply because it was fun and they were amongst friends. At what point along the way did we lose the ability to see youth sports as they were meant to be . . . an outlet for children to play?
There are club teams, traveling teams, elite coaches trained to develop finite skill sets, and an expectation to specialize in one sport. Pressure is put on both the child and the parents to fully commit and perform, without which, they are destined to never receive that full-ride scholarship or trip to the big leagues. Insert the eye roll emoji here. Average families are being priced out when they cannot afford to drop a few thousand dollars for an elite team. Families are to sacrifice their most sacred commodity, time, with several nights of practice, weekend after weekend of out-of-state tournaments and a year-round obligation.
My junior year in high school I tried out to be the goalie of the newly-formed girls’ soccer team. It looked fun, and didn’t require a ton of running, in sharp contrast to the track team. I became the goalie because everyone who tried out made the team, despite not even knowing the rules of the game. Sadly, my children will not likely experience such carefree recreation. And it’s because we have taken the recreation out of the equation and replaced it with an elitist and overly-competitive culture of winning.
There are always exceptions to this rule, and I am fully aware this does not apply to every community and every team. It is very apparent, however, that we as parents need to take a long hard look at the pressure we are putting on children to perform and be our definition of “successful,” especially when it comes to sports. It seems as though we have lost our way. Let us not forget, it is called “Little League” because we are dealing with little kids. Athletic endeavors should build confidence, teach diligence, and inspire hard work–not encourage exclusivity.
We are racing to practices after work, giving up our leisurely family time, and dragging younger siblings to game after game, because it should be bringing our children joy. In return, that brings us joy, right? My kid and your kid are not going to be the next Michael Phelps or Simone Biles. They might, however, find their lifelong best friend on the summer softball team. He or she could find out they love tennis in middle school and make it a forever hobby. Maybe it’s time to reassess the value we place on being the best, and break free from the madness we have created.
Would it be nice if everyone’s child were athletically gifted? Sure, I guess. That’s unfortunately never going to be the case. Instead, let’s focus on the fact that organized sports can be a positive force in cultivating friendships, encouraging kids to be a respectful teammates, and setting them up to be good people in the future. If they are the ones picking dandelions in the outfield or hitting home runs, the point is that it brings them happiness. The innocence has been lost, but I don’t believe it is too late to find it again. It is, after all, just a game.