Youth sports have changed. Gone are the days when a child plays basketball in the winter, baseball in the spring and summer, and football in the fall. Now, if a child wants to keep up, he plays each sport approximately 10 months out of the year. While there is no doubt that this phenomenon is producing athletes that are able to achieve amazing things at younger ages, it creates significant consequences on both the players and their families.
Colleges are recognizing that the “more is better” model of youth sports puts players at an increased risk of burn out at younger ages. I was burned out on baseball by the end of my 12-year-old season in Little League. I had invested so much time and emotional energy that I was just tired of it. I continued to play for the next three or four years, but my love for the game was gone. And that was 30 years ago, when there were far fewer organized games and practices.
The Game Has Changed in Youth Sports
Since that time, youth sports have ramped up in both volume and intensity in a major way. By the time my oldest son was eight years old, he had played more organized, official baseball games then I had played by the time I graduated from high school. Each baseball league now has both a fall season and a spring season, and the better players will play All-Stars or travel ball all summer. Those players will then typically attend weekly camps or lessons during the off-season. The routine is similar for basketball players. They typically play in a fall league, a winter league, and a spring league, and then play travel ball and do camps during the summer.
Better Players at Younger Ages
This level of activity makes them better players at younger ages. There’s a reason why players at the college and professional levels are achieving things at younger ages than ever before: because they get so much experience and so much instruction at younger ages, they enter each stage more prepared than players in the past.
Burnout and Overuse Injuries
However, this extra experience and instruction also leads them to grow tired of the sport at younger ages. It is not uncommon for baseball travel teams for seven-year-old players to play 50 or 60 games in addition to their league games. This increased volume creates another consequence, which affects even those players who don’t experience burn out: overuse injuries. Baseball players are having more and more surgeries on their arms at younger and younger ages (sometimes by choice, with the hope of additional velocity on their fastball). Basketball players are tearing knee and ankle ligaments at younger and younger ages.
A third consequence is that, because of the year-long participation requirement in order to remain competitive, youth players (and their parents) are tempted to choose at a very young age the one sport in which they will specialize. If they don’t devote their entire year to that sport, they lose ground competitively to the other players that play the entire year. If they refuse to play that one sport all year long, not only do they risk being at a competitive disadvantage, they risk losing favor in the eyes of their coaches. It is not uncommon to hear stories from parents who were told that, if their child doesn’t play baseball during the fall season, or during the summer, that they won’t have a place on the travel team the following spring. Unscrupulous coaches use these techniques to leverage and strong arm year-long participation from fearful parents who only wish to give their children the best opportunities to succeed.
Diminished Family Time
The fourth consequence is on the family itself. It’s not just the year-long participation schedule that leaves families in a wreck. Most league schedules are very intense, with two to three games and one or two practices each week. As a result, even for those parents who require that their children play multiple sports, the family will spend their year going from baseball facility to basketball facility to soccer facility to football facility. If you add multiple children to the mix, the volume increases significantly. If you add multiple sports for multiple children, insanity (and sometimes hilarity) ensues. Either way, the culture of youth sports leaves precious little room for families to do anything else.
At one point in March 2016, my children were playing on 10 sports teams: Four different basketball teams, four baseball teams, and two softball teams. Granted, this was a temporary arrangement where basketball and baseball overlapped, and it was of my own choosing, but it was still crazy and was the result of the increased volume of youth sports.
Children end up becoming full-time athletes, and parents become full-time chauffeurs (which creates problems in itself, as I wrote here). If there is a child in the family who doesn’t participate in sports or wants to participate in activities such as art, drama, scouts, shooting sports, etc., the family has two choices, neither of which are good: either add another event to the schedule (with a corresponding layer of insanity) or cause that child to miss out.
Finally, kids who are full-time athletes often become underdeveloped in other important areas. Kids who spent all their time and energy on the field or court have precious little of either left to do chores around the house, to learn to fix things, to learn how to fish or hunt, to go camping, and learn other skills. Instead of developing skills that will serve them the rest of their lives, they spend their time and energy learning skills that will serve them until their athletic careers end, which will be sooner rather than later.
And so, as parents, we are left with this dilemma: we either cut out certain sports in the hope of maintaining a more balanced family life and raising more balanced kids, or we bow to the youth sports culture and run our families ragged trying to do it all. However if we try to maintain a more balanced family life, there is nagging guilt that we have not given our player the greatest opportunity to succeed in his or her sport or sports. Yet if we run our families ragged playing sports all year long, we risk burn out, injury, and leaving out our children who have other interests. The paradox is that the very thing that can teach our child valuable life lessons can also be our family’s undoing.
Given this Hobson’s choice, what’s a dad to do? One thing is clear, and that’s that we must choose and set direction and boundaries for our family. The youth sports culture is not going to change. There is too much money to be made and there are too many people seeking a competitive advantage for their child. There are no easy answers on what to do. In the end, we have to balance all of the competing factors and make the best decisions for our family as a whole, giving due attention to both the athletes and non-athletes in our family, as well as the health of the relationships in the group as a whole.
A few guiding principles:
- Unless your child is a prodigy who dominates at the youth level without significant instruction, college scholarships will likely not be worth the time and money that you will put into your child’s development in the sport. So, don’t rationalize the insanity all by saying it’s a good financial investment.
- The lessons and relationships that your child learns playing sports, especially for boys, are almost priceless. A boy who builds his strength, speed, athleticism, and skill while learning to work hard consistently, work with others, sacrifice for others, become mentally strong, maintain focus, overcome adversity, receive instruction and criticism, and to win and lose graciously is boy who is well on his way to becoming good at being a man.
- That said, kids who come to believe they are the center of the family’s life will struggle. If you communicate that their activities are more important than family time or the activities of a sibling, there’s almost no way to keep them from becoming self-centered.
- Your child needs you and the family more than they need the sport. As noted, the lessons of sports are of great value. However, living life in the family context should be supreme. Within the family context, the child learns cooperation, authority, hard work, self-control, humility, toughness, selflessness, and compassion.
- Your child can learn the lessons of sports without year-round participation. Like everything else, there is a minimum effective dose. Further, as the old saying goes, it’s the dose that makes the poison. You have to figure out the proper dosage of activities for your family.
- You must make time for learning other skills. Make sure your kids have chores to do. Make sure they learn general maintenance around the house and for vehicles. Make sure they learn some survival skills. Teach them to hunt and fish. In short, prepare them for life as a man. That preparation goes far beyond learning to hit, throw, or shoot a ball.
The needs and interests of each family will be different, so there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem. However, it’s incumbent upon us as men to be aware of and set proper boundaries for our families. Otherwise, the youth sports industrial complex will run our families into the ground. That’s all for today – I have a youth baseball game to coach.