Sunday, July 03, 2016

The Race to Nowhere in Youth Sports

I was a college athlete.

I was a very good high school volleyball and basketball player and could have played either sport (or both) in college.

I chose basketball and was a Division I Basketball player for Western Kentucky University.

I played my first sport at age 9. And it wasn't basketball or volleyball. It was softball.

I didn't play basketball until I was around 12. I first played volleyball at 13.

It wasn't until I was in the 10th grade that my father, who was also my coach, suggested I eliminate softball from my arsenal of athletic activities. Basketball and volleyball were dominating my schedule, and it was suggested that cutting one out that I wasn't all that good at might be a good idea.

In addition, in the middle of an intense recruiting process, I began to burn out. I told my Dad that maybe I didn't want to play big time basketball. Maybe I just wanted to go to some little school somewhere.

My father's response: "If that is what you want, I support you 100%."

I have written about my opinion of coaches and parents and young athletes in previous blog posts. You can read those here:
And today, I stumbled upon another article that really backed up my very strong feelings about youth sports. You can read the article by clicking here: The Race to Nowhere in Youth Sports.

JB and I have continually gone back and forth about whether to put our children in sports. We feel pushed and encouraged to do so from various sides. I did, in fact, put the boys in tennis while we were in the Azores. It was a cheap opportunity, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to learn some hand-eye coordination. JB was not a fan of me doing it, but he allowed me to put them in. Neither of them particularly liked going, and while they did learn some things, generally, the activity just cluttered our schedule.

I don't have any problem with kids playing sports young. If the families are enjoying this and the kids are enjoying it and it is a healthy family experience, then I don't see anything wrong with it. I recently attended our friend William's Upwards soccer game, and it seemed like an incredibly positive environment and good opportunity for faith and fun to couple together in a family-centered environment.

However, what I hear from most of my friends when it comes to children and activities is instead a feeling of exhaustion, frustration, and lack of time as they race from activity to activity. I feel that children are being started way too young and being pushed way too hard. And because they are, I, as a parent, have FEAR.

I have FEAR that if I don't put my children into sports soon, they will be left behind forever, and they will never be able to catch up. I think in general, pushing this hard is a RACE TO NOWHERE. Most children do not play even intramural sports by the time they get to college. They are burned out and bitter. I think it is utterly ridiculous that:
  • children are being encouraged to narrow their focus before high school.
  • children must get private lessons or attend extra camps to be considered for a spot on a team.
  • families must give up vacations or that an athlete must choose between a holiday with their parents and an athletic event.
  • coaches must focus more on creating winning athletes instead of creating winning young men and women.
  • children are being pushed without ownership, enjoyment, and intrinsic motivation. 
  • sports dominate to such a degree that a childhood is eliminated in exchange for running from place to place.
  • parents and coaches are robbing a child of the opportunity to be a child, to play freely, to explore sports of interest, and to learn to love sports and become active for life.
I have often said the following words in my own voice, and I loved seeing someone else write what I feel:

"Chances are great that your children will be done with sports by high school, as only a select few play in college and beyond. Even the elite players are done at an age when they have over half their life ahead of them. It is not athletic ability, but the lessons learned from sport that need to last a lifetime."
I LOVED my athletic childhood. But I CHOSE that childhood. My parents did not push me to participate in things I did not want to. The decision was mine. And for all those years we spent pursuing my athletics, I received a fully paid college education.
However, at 21 years of age, that era was behind me, and it was time to move forward with the rest of my life. Had I been instilled with the qualities and character I needed to live my life away from the game?
Yes.
And that is the most important thing.

6 comments:

Lisa Cronk said...

I agree, Wendi! It seems like the culture of children's sports now is toxic! There are some sports in which it seems especially terrible (like hockey in Minnesota), but really, you see it creeping into a lot of sports. Parents seem to push their kids so much to the point of it being totally unhealthy.
The hard part is drawing those lines. Austin is almost 8 and is obsessed with sports. He LOVES to play. He comes home from school, drops his bag and runs outside to play football by himself in the yard or with other neighborhood kids. He'll kick a soccer ball around all day or shoot hoops until it is dark out. We have let him play 1 sport a season (plus swimming lessons because we want him to be safe in the water), but even when the teams are great and encouraging and a good environment, it is exhausting to drag all 3 of the kids to his games and practices. I can't imagine once we have all 3 kids with extracurriculars! Ugh! The great thing is that he loves to play sports, but the problem is that he loves every sport he plays (and actually shows skill for a few of them). Getting him to narrow it down in the future could be tough. But even then, already they are trying to recruit him to the special training academy sessions, etc and A) we're not up for that kind of time commitment, and B) he's 7 years old! for crying out loud! Back off people!
It also scares me being on the health care end of youth sports - my son loves football and soccer, but I keep seeing all these young kids coming in with concussions and major injuries from sports like football and soccer. It makes me nervous about risking his brain for a sport that most likely will not carry into the rest of his life Not worth his brain!

Emily said...

Very interesting post! I honestly have nothing but positive memories from my experience in youth sports. Even though I wasn't the best athlete (you know this!!) the experience of being a part of a team taught me so much that I have been able to take with me as an adult. Now that I am about to be a mom myself, I can only hope that my daughter is blessed with a positive experience with sports too, if she chooses to play.

Wendi Kitsteiner said...

Emily, I think you are exactly what I am talking about -- someone who played, enjoyed it, but didn't play it year wrong and wasn't pushed unnecessarily!

denise said...

Starting last year in 2nd grade we sat our boys down and let them each pick one thing they wanted to do. Previously we have had them in scouts, soccer, gymnastics as toddlers, etc. all at different times. Two picked gymnastics and once hip hop dance. (Yes, I said dance. He LOVES it!). One lasted August - November for gymnastics and just wanted to stay home with me (he is my artsy homebody). The other one lasted through February before asking to be done with gymnastics. Before we allowed them to quit, they had to give us their reasons, finish the month, and repeat back to us about if their sport had been a team sport, they would have had to finish their season. But since we paid monthly, they just had to finish the month. We took the summer off anything that was weekly. We had vbs for 2 while 1 had drama camp at the local high school. (Same one that loves dance :). We finally found so,etching artsy and my homebody art boy CRIED the last day of art camp because he loved it so much. This school year they all got to pick again. 1 is still doing dance, and the other two picked our Wednesday night program at church. While it makes us busy, I feel it's not too crazy. To me it seems that where we live has such a huge emphasis on sports, like wayyyyy more than I remember growing up. On one hand I glad we aren't doing two baseball practices and two baseball games a week. I'm glad I don't have Saturdays filled up every week for sports. But then every so often I wonder if I'm doing a bad thing if they want to play when they are older but are years "behind" their fried so that have been playing for years??!! Time will tell, I guess. All I can say is my kids seem happy with their choices and I feel like I'm not driving them around all the time. Lol. Sorry for the book!

Traci said...

I am hoping to introduce my children to many sports, so they may choose what interests them. The teams I had through high school and college were invaluable to me for so many reasons. I would like my children to have that same "team" experience. The problem we've run into recently is that practice is often on weekday evenings to accommodate working parents, which interferes with family dinner time and bedtime. Sitting down for family dinner and making it to bed on time on school nights is not negotiable for me. The former is the quality time I get to spend with my children every day (since I am the "breadwinner" and at work during the day) and the latter isn't just good for the kiddos, but also provides me time to spend with my husband. As a bonus, getting to bed on time means much happier mornings when we are getting ready for school. I'm not sure what the answer to this is except to not participate until they are older and bedtime is later, but then I worry they'll lose their opportunity to participate because they'll be "behind" in learning the required skills.

Megan Cheek said...

Spot on! I did burn out. Did not even play basketball my senior year... The sport I was supposedly a natural at. Opted for vball because it was newerand less of a chore.