In one generation, the nature of youth sports has changed dramatically. To illustrate my point, I want to paint my childhood experience (k-8th grade). Almost every day on the bus ride home from school, we voted on the sport we were going to play and the meeting point. We played all kinds of sports – football, basketball, baseball, kickball, tennis, and hockey. We loved it. It was fun, competitive and free. We made our own rules and settled our own disputes.
Fast forward 30 years. My 4 girls (ages 8, 8, 10 & 12) decide to organize a soccer game in the backyard. They ride their bikes house-to-house to ask neighborhood kids to join them. They come back 30 minutes later with mopey faces and tell me that all the neighbor kids are at soccer practice. Even at elementary school, virtually all sports are organized. Similarly, if I call up my friends to play a round of weekend golf, most parents are out of town for the entire weekend, yet again following their middle school kid to another sports tournament.
Earlier this year, five-time Super Bowl Champ Tom Brady expressed similar feelings as a dad of young children. He said,
“What I remember from being in youth sports, everything was really localized. There were no travel teams. My parents always exposed us to different things, different sports. It was basketball when it was basketball season. It was baseball when it was baseball season. I didn’t play football until I was a freshman in high school. A lot of soccer. There were some camps, but I just played in the neighborhood in our street with all the kids we grew up with. It’s just different now, and I’m experiencing it with my own kids with all the organized activities that you put them in. It’s just hard, because all the parents are doing it, it seems, and the competition feels like it starts so early for these kids.”
Mark Hyman, a professor of sports management at George Washington University, said youth sports today look nothing like they used to. “The adults have won,” Hyman said. “If we wiped the slate clean and reinvented youth sports from scratch by putting the physical and emotional needs of kids first, nothing would be recognizable.” The problem, he said, is that, “We no longer value participation. We value excellence.” The kids do not. Amanda Visek, another professor at George Washington, surveyed 150 children about what makes sports fun for them. The kids listed 81 different factors that made them happy playing sports. Winning ranked 48th.
I love sports and I want my children to play sports. Sports can instill character and many athletic lessons translate very well into life. I want my children to learn about winning with class and losing with dignity. I want them to learn and relearn concepts of perseverance, teamwork, humility, and commitment. But I do need argue the following points: 1.) Children can and should learn these concepts by playing pickup games in the neighborhood outside the watchful eye of adults.
2) Children do not have to join travel teams to learn such valuable life-lessons.
3) Specializing in one sport does not build a child’s character any faster than playing several sports in a given year.
In other words, the nature of youth sports has not changed for the betterment of the child. These changes have not improved the social-emotional IQ of children. Playing a sport more often and playing against greater talent will develop athletes who can compete at a higher level. It’s why certain coaches want athletes to specialize in one sport and train year-round. My argument however, is that these changes are not in the best interest of children, families, and finances.
Ninety-nine percent of high school students who play sports do not receive an athletic scholarship in college. Yet, American parents cumulatively pay $10 billion annually for the privilege of traveling hundreds of miles to watch a child play a sport many weekends a year. Families with multiple children in sports often separate to zigzag the state to watch each child play a different sport in a different city. It’s exhausting, it’s expensive and it’s not healthy for families. Imagine if we put that money into our child’s college fund. Imagine if we put that money into family vacations where children saw more than a soccer field. Imagine if several neighboring teams played each other in a game at a local field instead of everyone driving 200 miles to face-off in a paid tournament.
I contend that my generation of parents have thier priorities out-of-whack. We bought hook, line and sinker into the idea of the importance of youth sports. We have sacrificed our family time and handed over the job of instilling character to another parent whose main focus is to teach our child to do something substantial with a ball. We have prioritized winning and competition at young ages. This leads to parents who someday criticize high school coaches about playing time and hire recruiting services to help land their child an athletic scholarship.
I ask parents to consider why they want their child to play youth sports. What do they hope their kids gain from the experience? How much time, focus and money should be spent on youth sports? Are there other avenues to instill character and build leadership? I contend that if we re-evaluate our answers to these questions, we will make better choices for our children and our families. This is the only way we change the nature of youth sports in America today.
Joe Hoedel earned his Ph.D. from Michigan State University. For 15 years, he has served as the president of Character Development & Leadership. He developed two national programs that improve the character and leadership of secondary students. To learn more about these programs please visit his website at https://www.characterandlea