Let the kids play

Let the kids play

When I was a youth, I played a lot of sports. 

There were the organized ones, soccer and hockey starting in first grade, baseball the year after that, lacrosse once I got to high school. 

But I probably spent far more time playing unorganized, largely unsupervised youth sports with friends and kids from the neighborhood — street hockey, Nerf football, driveway basketball, kickball, wiffleball — and the epic, two-on-two floor hockey tournaments in our unfinished basement were the stuff of legend. 

Sports, both organized and unorganized, were almost pure fun. Well, baseball was not great, and my only talent seemed to be getting beaned, but I was allowed to quit that after a couple of years. The competition part of hockey got fairly intense when I was on the high school varsity hockey team, but there was never a time when my main motivation to play was anything other than because I liked it and I wanted to.

This spirit seems to be getting lost in the increasingly high-pressure world of youth sports. In a recent interview at the New York Times, Linda Flanagan, author of Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania Are Ruining Kids Sports explains how youth sports have become a multi-billion dollar industry where every parent thinks a college scholarship (or beyond) is in their child’s future.

Flanagan describes how parents’ desire to provide opportunities for their children has morphed into a culture where the pressure to perform descends on kids too young to handle it developmentally. Research shows that the more parents spend on a child’s sport, the less the child enjoys it.

Rather than trying out different sports or having a different sport each season, children now specialize, putting a 12-month focus on a single sport, with games and practices augmented by private coaching for the kids whose parents can afford it. If your child wants to play sports, they have to be good enough to grab one of the scarce slots on the team. Recreational or “house” leagues made up of kids who want to play, but might not want to travel the region, state, or country in search of competition have largely disappeared because there’s fewer business opportunities in those sorts of activities. 

The children playing the sports are more likely to be stressed, become burnt out, or even subject to injury, as they spend too much time on repetitive actions related to a single sport. 

It is understandable that parents want to give their child access to whatever they need to succeed. However, it is important to think of the long game when it comes to sports, recognizing how playing sports is a route toward personal development and physical health, not just a means of getting a child into college or receiving a scholarship.

For sure, I’ve had some students who achieved amazing things in college and have even gone on to play professionally. One student from Virginia Tech has gone on to a long and distinguished career in the NFL. Another from College of Charleston is on the verge of making his MLB debut next year. 

But they are by far the exception. 

While I do not have a child involved in youth sports, I have to say that having taught hundreds of collegiate athletes over the years as a college instructor, I am not surprised. I heard first hand testimony from many athletes that they arrived in college largely burnt out on their sports, wanting a break, but finding college sports and college academics only more intense and stressful. What had been sold as a finish line — scholarship! — instead felt like the start of an ultra-marathon. 

Many of my student athletes ended up leaving their sports after a semester or a year, unable to find any pleasure in something at which they clearly excelled. 

Youth sports looks a lot like academics in how we position it. What you are doing and how you feel in the moment is less important than unknown (and unknowable) future benefits. This is not a recipe for success in either the present or the future. 

I’m grateful I grew up in an erawhere I had a lot of time for those unsupervised sports. You learn a lot when you have to figure out how to compete and have fun when adults aren’t around. Sometimes you end up settling a problem with a fight, but if you want to keep playing, ultimately an accommodation that works for all has to be reached.

Both sports and school should be sources of great challenges, but also great joy, and not only when someone “wins.” Playing should bring its own pleasure.