Youth sports: Insanity and big business

We gotta let kids be kids

I grew up a child of the 80s.  Soccer started in early spring when the days were still short and the air was still crisp and ended in time to start baseball.  Baseball consumed the summer and wound down before the start of school.  The beginning of the school year ushered in another season of soccer which conveniently ended in time to start the basketball.  This continued through my childhood.  I got caught up in the excitement of each season and it was fun.  I have wonderful memories, learned valuable lessons, and can only hope that my kids have similar experiences. 

Youth Sports Today

Youth sports are very different today.  Regardless of the sport, kids who play competitively are expected to participate year round.  Parents are obsessed with their kids playing at the highest levels as if it is a reflection on their family.  The coaches pressure year round participation while parents have a fear of decreased playing time or kids falling behind if they do not play year round.

The problems with this model are widespread and apparent.  As kids play different sports, they use different muscles which creates a rounded athlete.  Specialization in sports at a young age leads to injuries and burnout.

The Biggest Problem: Parents

Children want to play sports for the camaraderie with teammates, the excitement of the game, and the most common reason – fun!  Many parents think their kids want to play sports for the same reasons they have – winning.  This leads to parents acting out their childhood vicariously through their kids while behaving in ways that are unacceptable. 

Among other things, parents strive for that elusive college scholarship. They somehow think an elite athlete at age 10 will translate into an elite athlete in high school.  Parents pay thousands of dollars for private lessons and put incredible pressure on their kids to perform.  We have all seen the ugly behavior of parents yelling at their child, another child, or the umpire at a game or practice.  These are elementary and middle school kids who just want to hear five simple words from their parents, “I love watching you play.”

The Reality

The numbers are staggering, which should lead all parents to take a step back and evaluate the reasons their kids are playing sports.  According to the NCAA official website, of the 8 million high school athletes, only 460,000 will compete at NCAA schools.  This means of 5.75 percent or approximately 1 out of 20 high school athletes will play in college.  Men’s basketball has 541,054 high school players. Of those players, only 3.4 percent will play in college and of those players, only 1.2 percent will be drafted by the NBA.  The numbers are simply stacked against you. 

The bottom line is, playing one sport year-round creates injuries and may be counterproductive to the goal of creating a great athlete.  The website trackingfootball.com researched the high school records of the 256 players selected in the 2015 NFL draft.  Of those, 224 played multiple sports in high school – that’s 88 percent.  Parents need to focus on creating a healthy athlete, and not a year-round robot.

Big Business

The Sports Facilities Advisory recently said that youth sports participation and sports tourism have thrived and blossomed into a fiscal impact of $7 billion!  Competitive sports leagues are popping up everywhere in the suburbs with cost seemingly no object to obsessed parents that see their kids as the next Derek Jeter. 

My son’s competitive baseball league alone has more than 60 teams with approximately 11 players on each team paying an average of $650 per child just to get started.  This means the league is making close to $430,000 in player fees alone.  This does not count the uniforms, lessons, travel, and camps.  Now imagine this with hockey, football, basketball, track, softball, gymnastics, and about any sport you can imagine spread across the United States.  Youth sports are now big business, with no end in sight.

The Lessons

Although this article points out the craziness of youth sports, I believe that my children have learned valuable lessons.  Through baseball, my son has learned how to fail, how to succeed, how to win while being humble and how to lose with grace.  In cross country, he has learned to push himself to the limit and the value of hard work.  These are all life lessons that a parent has a hard time teaching without these experiences.

I grew up as a childhood friend of Clint Verran.  He played multiple sports growing up through his junior year of high school including football, track, cross country, baseball, and basketball.  In his senior year, Clint decided to focus solely on running.  He gravitated to the sport he excelled at only after experiencing many other sports.  Clint went on to win the Michigan Cross Country State Championship our senior year.  He received a scholarship to run in college and reached his pinnacle as a professional runner by finishing as the second runner up in the 2004 Olympic marathon trials.  Clint naturally found his niche, and I often wonder if he would have found his way with the state of youth sports today. 

With no end in sight, it is up to the parents to take a measured approach to youth sports while allowing kids to be kids.

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