I spend my spare time coaching a youth soccer team. There is nothing better than a sunny day, a freshly-mowed soccer field, and a bunch of kids kicking around soccer balls. It reminds me of everything that is great but fleeting about youth: the boundless energy, the effortless spontaneity, and the pure joy. All of that plus nifty shin guards equals a mighty good time.
For a soccer family, Saturday mornings mean soccer games. There’s a ritual: wake up, eat breakfast, drink coffee, load soccer gear into the car, drive to a local soccer field, and watch the kids (and parents) have fun. That’s exactly how this last weekend started for me: full of optimism and excitement about playing on what was a nearly perfect spring day. But the game itself turned into a stark reminder of a few of the elements of youth sports today that I don’t like. This became the inspiration for the topic of this blog post.
There are so many positive things about youth sports, and so much to say about the positive impacts that youth sports can have on kids, that it may seem rather pessimistic to start with a focus on the bad side of youth sports. Don’t worry; my next post will cover those. But I find that nothing more reminds me of why I do what I do than being exposed to those who do it wrong, or shouldn’t really be doing it at all. (I’m looking at you, bad/mean/yelling coaches!). Sometimes we need to see the bad in order to appreciate the good.
So here they are. Four bad things about youth sports today:
- Specialization. There was a time when youth sports were attached to seasons. Just like you could expect certain kinds of produce at one time of the year and not another, you knew that every sport had a season, and every season a sport. Winter meant the squeak of basketball shoes against varnished wood, spring meant the sharp crack of bat against ball, and fall meant cleats churning away grass that just wanted to be left alone to prepare for winter dormancy. Things have changed. Sports are no longer connected to seasons. Due to competitive pressures from various sources, nearly every youth sport is being played year round. This is a powerful trend, encompassing more sports even as it reaches to lower ages. If a child wants to remain competitive in any sport, she must choose at a ridiculously early age–sometimes as early as the second grade–to focus all her energy and attention on a single sport 24/7/365. This additional training time allows for a relentless focus on the development of sport-specific technical skill and conditioning. It is not unusual for fifth graders these days to engage in sport-specific strength training with professional trainers. It is a recipe for the development of narrowly focused skills, for physical injury, and for mental burnout. It is not a recipe for fun.
- Hyper-Competitive Spirit. As players become more focused on individual sports and parents begin spending greater and greater resources to improve skills and performance, it is perhaps natural that a hyper-competitive attitude would emerge. I am not opposed to competition or the desire to win in the context of youth sports. Competition can be healthy and good. It can focus the mind, encourage hard work, and improve both character and athletic skill. In far too many cases, though, the competitive drive that is a natural part of athletics has overflowed the banks of reason and has resulted in a hyper-competitive spirit that is ultimately corrosive. Far too many of the folks involved in youth sports today have lost sight of why we want kids to compete in the first place. It is not, I would argue, to make them better athletes and it is certainly not to win for the sake of winning. Competition and the winning and losing that it entails are the means to a far more noble end: character development. Once folks lose sight of that end and become fixated on the winning itself, the entire enterprise loses value.
- Uptight Coaches. As long as there have been sports there have been bad coaches. We’ve all seen them: they scream, they stomp, they denigrate. They argue with officials, they berate their players, and they coach with winning in mind to the exclusion of everything else. They are jerks, and fortunately they are rare. But they still exist, and the trends toward specialization and hyper-competition stoke rather than dampen the flames of their bad-coaching behavior.
- Booster Parents. Parents are the lifeblood of youth sports. None of it would happen without their active participation, their volunteer efforts, and their support on the sidelines. They are a necessary part of any successful youth sports program, and the first thing every successful coach will mention when asked what is important to her is a team full of supportive parents. Such parents help and cheer and holler at games, but always in a positive and supportive way. There’s another kind of parent; I call them “booster parents” because they act in almost every way like the boosters who are a part of nearly every college football team in the country. They assess the skills of players with an eye toward improving the team by replacing one kid with another. They chatter in the coach’s ear about playing time, coaching strategy, and substitution patterns. During games, they yell at the referees and their own players as if they are watching a televised sporting event. They are obnoxious. I am fortunate to have never had such a parent involved with my team. But they are out there, and they are LOUD.
These bad elements are not pervasive in youth sports, but they are present, and their effects are wholly negative.Fighting against such trends is not like fighting against the tides or the wind. These are cultural issues as much as anything, and they can be affected by actions as simple as parents standing up and saying what they want from youth sports.
If parents want recreational sports programs that allow kids to develop character, sportsmanship, and athletic skill (in that order) in a supportive environment, we need to say so. A simple supportive statement to a coach who is doing things right, an email to a sports program that is drifting in the wrong direction, or a phone call to other parents just to express appreciation for being positive fans can work wonders.
The pressures pushing these trends are powerful and vocal. They push hard. Parents need to push back.