Youth sports in America are ‘Big Business.” How big is “big?” Well, consider the following:
- An estimated 36 million youths age 6-17 participate in youth sports in the U.S
- Families alone spend at least $30 billion a year on youth sports
- The average family spends roughly $1,400 on sports activities every year per child with a high-end figure of $10,000 to $12,000 per child for participation in some “Elite” travel league sports programs.
**(Statistics from Project Play, The Aspen Institute, May, 2021)**
At one time in this country, youth sports were largely about bonding kids and their parents in their communities. But those days are long gone. Today, more and more parents are spending more and more time and money when it comes to their children’s youth sports programs. Elite travel youth sports programs in soccer, ice hockey, basketball, baseball can easily cost a family over $10,000 for one season and not just anyone gets to play in these programs. With special tryouts and extensive specialization and training programs, only ‘the best’ find their name on the roster, and that’s only if mom and dad can pay for it. So let me ask the question, “Mom, Dad, what is your end game in all this?” What are you hoping to accomplish and what do you want your son or daughter to come away with from their youth sports experience?
First, if you tell me it’s to hopefully help them earn a full athletic scholarship to some D-1 college or university, you might want to re-think that strategy. Recent statistics show that only 2% of high school athletes go on to play sports at NCAA Division 1 colleges or universities and not all of those student-athletes are on athletic scholarships. But, I have another, more important reason for asking the question.
In today’s world (can we call it post-pandemic yet?), there is a great deal of attention being given to mental health issues and what people of all ages, but especially our young people, are dealing with. I go back to an article entitled Crazy Travel, Crazy Costs, Crazy Stress, How Kid Sports Turned Pro published in TIME magazine some 5 years ago (September 4, 2017). Here’s a quote from that article:
“Children sense that the stakes are rising. In a 2016 study published in the journal Family Relations, Travis Dorsch, founding Director of the Families in Sport Lab at Utah State University and his colleagues found that the more money families pour into youth sports, the more pressure their kids feel – and the less they enjoy and feel committed to their sport.”
So, could it be that our children’s participation in some youth sports programs, especially those elite “high-end” youth sports programs, actually contributes to some of the more dangerous mental health issues such as increased anxiety, depression, etc.? I would hope not, but a recent discussion with my older brother who was an excellent athlete actually got me to seriously consider that possibility. My brother played organized sports as I did from the time he was a young boy up through his collegiate years (4 years of college football and an extended tryout in the CFL). We were recently reminiscing over some of our experiences growing up and he shared with me how a summer vacation trip we were taking as a family caused him to miss a championship baseball playoff game when he was just 11 years old. He said to me, “I remember being so relieved that I would not have to play in that game.” I was dumbfounded to hear him admit this. But yes, even in a local town league baseball playoff game (this was NOT elite travel league stuff), he was feeling the pressure to perform well and, yes, to win.
Now, let me make sure to clarify my position on youth sports programs. I totally believe in the value of the youth sports experience and that is why I wrote my third book, Coaching is Teaching at its Best! – A Guide for Youth Coaches in All Sports. I grew up competing in multiple organized sports from the time I was 8 years-old up through my college years and I am of the belief that there may be no better venue to learn valuable life lessons than on the fields, courts, rinks, etc. where youth sporting events are played. Learning about the value of teamwork and what it means to be a good teammate, learning to accept our individual differences and the importance of exercising self-discipline, practicing good sportsmanship and the list goes on – there is no doubt that youth sports can, and do, provide extremely valuable learning experiences for young people.
If there is a problem in our youth sports programs today, it is NOT with the kids. Having been a certified official with both USA Hockey and USA Lacrosse for over a decade, I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly of youth sports programs. While I totally appreciate the dedication and support of caring, loving parents when it comes to their children’s youth sport experience, ironically, the biggest problems in youth sports start and end with the adults involved! Whether its overzealous coaches worrying about their win-loss record or parents living vicariously through their children’s athletic experience – this is where the problems usually begin and there is no excuse for it.
Sure, you’re going to play to win. I get that! That’s why we have scoreboards and that’s one of the valuable life lessons we learn in competitive athletics – somedays you win and somedays you lose. But, how are we teaching our kids to deal with and process that loss? Isn’t that when we have the best opportunity to learn and improve, when we lose? But, I’m not sure that is how “a loss” is typically being handled with our young athletes. After all, even the greatest athletes of our time (Tom Brady, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Derek Jeter, etc.) lost games; but nobody would ever label any of them “a loser.” So why should any 10 year-old ever walk away from a loss feeling like….a loser? If he/she does, I put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the coach or the mom and dad of that young athlete. If there is anything I have learned over my lifetime in competitive athletics it is that the ‘bigger picture’ of life is NOT tied to the outcome of any sporting event, especially a youth sporting event.
Let me close by asking an obvious question – Do you love your kids? I’m sure you do. Then let them enjoy their youth sports experience and make sure you tell them how much you love them after every youth sporting event they play in, regardless of the outcome. After all, your son/daughter is a loved child of God. Remind them of that EVERY day. That is what really matters.