The Monster of Youth Sports

Parent on sidelines

The Race to Nowhere in Youth Sports is a great article that points out what most parents already know – youth sports are completely and totally out of control. From the time, to the money, to the pressure, to the travel, to the stress on young bodies that are still growing and developing, it’s a bunch of insanity . The realistic among us know that none of this will result in a college scholarship (ironically, there are more scholarships available for academics than athletics, but let’s not get bogged down in that little fact). Yet, who will be the one to pull their kid from the summer program?  No one. Because as the author of the article points out, we’re all afraid of making the choice that will ultimately leave our kid out. Out socially or out athletically. It’s out either way.

There are no more seasons for sports. There’s spring baseball and fall ball (and championships for both, of course). Lacrosse has literally become a year-round sport. CYO basketball isn’t where all the “real” players go – they’re all on AAU teams. Wanna play soccer? There’s rec, travel and then ELITE teams.  Soccer, too, isn’t just for fall – it’s spring and fall with winter indoor practices. Think summer is a time to take off? NO! There are summer leagues for everything including ice hockey (nothing says “summer” quite like being on an ice rink).  And if your kid wants to have fun on a club swim team, be prepared to be disappointed because all the “serious” swimmers are in the pool all year long. Even writing about it is exhausting and annoying.

But we have no one but ourselves to blame. After all, our peers are the coaches that are pushing for this specialization. We’re the ones posting the “championship” photos on Facebook and chronicling each and every pitch, tackle, kick or stroke out for the world to see. So how much of this is about the kid vs. being about us?  Is it about our kid being “great” or about showing the world how “great” of a kid we made? (This may be the subject of another blog, another day.)

And let’s not forget the money. Summer leagues, travel teams, elite clubs all cost — a lot. And then you and your family have to travel, stay at a hotel, eat in restaurants, buy from the vendors and visit the amusement parks that are all conveniently located near the site of the tournaments.  It all keeps the economy rolling. Youth sports, for better or worse, are big money for a multitude of reasons. So, I don’t see this going away anytime soon.

The one exception I will take with the author is that I think a lot of kids end up dropping out of sports BY high school, not in high school. Burn out. Injury. Yes, maybe. But at the end of the day, kids who are truly athletic will rise to the top because they have talent. Let’s face it, not all travel teams are created equal. Some are in place to merely capitalize on keeping kids playing (see the above paragraph on money).  Locally, we see this with boys lacrosse.  Football players, talented athletes who have never in their lives picked up a lax stick, go out for the team. Why? Because it’s great off-season conditioning for football, and they are talented athletes who can run fast and catch a ball (be it in their hands or in the mesh at the end of a stick). It’s not unfair. It’s reality. Coaches are going to put the best athletes on the team whether or not the kid has been playing since five years old.

Maybe all these different travel teams and specialty leagues are only putting off the inevitable. They’re like participation medals. The shiny treat that makes us all feel good. But let’s face it: all of our kids aren’t going to make the high school team.

And it makes me sad to think that my son may not play a sport in high school. My husband and I both have fond memories of being involved with our school beyond academics. But it won’t be the end of the world if he doesn’t – maybe he can find another group that’s of interest to him.  There doesn’t seem to be a lot of pressure to have been in elementary Model Congress in order to be on the high school club (or, wait, maybe there is, and we’re already behind!).

Until then, though, we’ll continue to run on the hamster wheel in the race to nowhere — because not running in that race is too lonely a spot.

Jean Maisano