Why do adults have to ruin youth sports?
One of my co-workers sent me a link to a New York Times article a couple weeks ago that talked about a disturbing trend of increased injuries in youth sports. More kids are being overworked and burned out at younger and younger ages, causing many more athletic injuries.
While the health aspects of this phenomenon are interesting by themselves, I was even more interested in the psychological and social aspects. There’s a portion in the article that I found particularly interesting:
The problem was put into focus three years ago by the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness. In a report in the academy’s journal, Pediatrics, Dr. Joel S. Brenner wrote, “Overuse injuries, overtraining and burnout among child and adolescent athletes are a growing problem in the United States.”
The goal of youth participation in sports, the council said, “should be to promote lifelong physical activity, recreation and skills of healthy competition.
“Unfortunately,” it went on, “too often the goal is skewed toward adult (parent/coach) goals either implicitly or explicitly. As more young athletes are becoming professionals at a younger age, there is more pressure to grab a piece of the ‘professional pie,’ to obtain a college scholarship or to make the Olympic team.”
If only it were this simple. We could start an educational program for adults explaining that about 0.5% of all high school athletes ever become professionals. That would be the easy part.
Unfortunately, I think the problem goes much deeper than that, into our human nature. I think our society’s emphasis on being first and winning has crept wholly into youth sports. I think the shame of being the parent of the worst player and the glory of raising the best player on the team has trampled over the true point of youth sports.
It’s amazing to me how adults (coaches and parents) can ruin something as great as youth sports. Some of my best memories growing up were playing Little League baseball. I’m not naive enough to think there weren’t problem parents and coaches back then because I’m sure there were. But they seemed to be in the minority to me.
Now, I’ve just started on this journey as a father in youth sports. My son is playing 5-6 year old T-ball (let me emphasize—T-ball), and I’m an assistant coach. Assistant coach at this level essentially means assistant to the head cat herder because basically all we’re really doing is herding cats. Make sure Nathan runs to second base, not right field, and James isn’t sitting on the ground eating dirt. That’s the extent of our “coaching” pretty much. To the kids, snack time at the end is pretty much the greatest thing ever. When they ask who won the game, I say it was a tie, 82-82, and that’s just fine with them.
However, our league commissioner, for the second year, proposed the idea of an All-Star game at the end of the season. Each team would pick three players, and they would get new jerseys just for the game (again, I want to remind you this is T-ball). Thankfully, our coach voiced his disagreement with the idea and said the Tigers would not be participating. A few other teams agreed and are out as well, but they will still be putting on this All-Star game, regardless.
There are so many opportunities for players who excel at a sport to be recognized for their abilities, but I am firmly confident that 5-6 year old T-ball is not the time. Unfortunately, I’m well aware that our league is not the only one that does things like this.
And it only gets worse the older the kids get. The explosion of select teams and travel teams has killed some of these kids’ childhoods. A 10- or 12-year-old boy should not be playing 50 baseball games in a season. A 13-year-old girl should not be traveling across the country for volleyball tournaments. I think parents and coaches have taken the youth out of youth sports.
You have to wonder if some of these kids are even having fun anymore! When I was growing up, most of the kids were actually kind of happy the baseball season was over so they could spend the rest of the summer at the pool.
And this also gets back to the health issues described in the New York Times article. When you have a long break between sports, a kid’s body is able to recover and build strength back up. Without that break, those same little bodies can definitely break down.
I hope my son and daughter will be fortunate enough to be in a youth league where the emphasis is on kids having fun. Don’t get me wrong; I would love to see them succeed in whatever they do. But I want them to become good sports, good teammates, and do all of it with a smile on their face.
That will be most important. And, after all, isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?
What were youth sports like when you were a kid? Do you see some of these problems with your grandchildrens’ sports leagues? What do you think can be done about this disturbing trend? Drop me an e-mail at email@example.com or leave a comment here.