What Happened to Youth Sports Just for Fun?

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Youth Sports: What's the Right Parenting Goal?
We didn’t eat dinner at home as a family for 4 months out of the year, but seeing our kids out there getting exercise, building friendships, and learning teamwork was worth it! What happened? Image credit: Patricia Vollmer

Something sad happened in our family this month. My oldest son, a high school freshman, is about to give up on high school baseball—he became very disappointed when he found out that the team had started practicing months ago for spring season tryouts and he missed those opportunities. He loves baseball. He had visions of playing in high school for several years. As a mother, my heart is breaking for him. My husband and I are trying to convince him not to give up that quickly, but it’s becoming clear in our family that our seemingly laissez-faire attitude towards youth team sports is catching up to us… and biting us in the rear!

I know this is a blog about, well, geekier topics, but, in this case, I’m more venting here about wanting to support my sons; seeing them disappointed never sits well with me. I’m not an expert in youth sports by any stretch. I’m just a mom… with an opinion.

High School Sports in America… What Happened?

I caught my first hints of what’s become of youth team sports back in 2012, the year my sons decided to switch from playing community soccer to community baseball in Navarre, Florida. Many of you may not know this, but when it comes to youth baseball, Florida is a force to be reckoned with. I’m sure it’s related to the year-round baseball-friendly weather. Check out the College World Series, and see which schools routinely have teams in the tournament. Yep, the schools from warm weather states. The Southeast and Pac-12 conferences dominate.

Our sons had very good experiences in Florida, in that they played for teams with coaches that seemed to emphasize good sportsmanship, teamwork, and (most importantly) having fun. My oldest son’s team in 4th grade was absolutely amazing—the coach emphasized nothing more than doing one’s best, but the kids got along well and came out at the top of their age group.

My sons had friends and teammates who were taking private baseball lessons from former Major League Baseball players who had retired to the Florida Gulf Coast. I asked my sons if that was something they were interested in. My youngest answered “No” without hesitation, but my oldest asked a couple of follow-up questions:

“Is it expensive?”

“Around $50 per hour.”

“How far away would we have to drive?”

“We’d have to drive one hour each way to Panama City Beach.”

“Hmmm… no thank you, Mom.”

My sons were interested in other activities. They were in Cub Scouts, and our family enjoyed traveling and hanging out with our friends. Those things would have taken away from the time our sons spent at batting cages and practicing fielding. I didn’t press the issue. In 2012, I honestly didn’t think this would make a difference one bit.

I feel that the landscape of youth sports has changed quite a bit since I played community and high school sports in the late 1980s. I will concede that today there’s still an emphasis on sportsmanship, teamwork, and a healthy lifestyle, but something changed. Actually, several things changed and I can just let these linked articles speak for themselves:

All of this seems to suggest that if your kids were interested in things other than their one sport, then getting an NCAA scholarship or the more-elusive professional sports offer becomes more of a dream than it was a generation ago.

My sons have other interests. In fact, I’m writing this post in the auditorium of my youngest son’s regional orchestra rehearsal. I have an almost-Eagle Boy Scout. They’re in math club, Rubik’s Cube club, Science Olympiad, and the chess club. My youngest just signed himself up for his middle school’s new Dungeons & Dragons club. I don’t want to discourage this well-roundedness, and perhaps it will be at the expense of athletic success.

Our Nomadic Lifestyle

We are a military family. Our sons have played youth sports in three different states. Three different communities. Not long after we arrived in Florida in 2010, our sons joined a baseball league with teammates who had been playing together since tee-ball. My husband wasn’t in a position to help coach (he routinely stayed at work later than the times for the practices), and even though my sons wanted to perform as pitcher and catcher, they already had those positions established by those who were in that role for 3-4 years with that particular league already. Don’t get me wrong, we never felt unwelcome, but it was clear that my sons had to compete with “known quantities.”

In the middle of 2013, our military family transferred from Florida to Colorado. We moved to a neighborhood that fed into a pretty successful Little League organization. We were (again) “new” to the league. So bringing in my 8-year-old who played catcher in Florida didn’t work too well in Colorado, where the other catchers here were a known quantity. My son ended up a third-string catcher and otherwise was in the outfield. This was discouraging, and he ended up not wanting to play baseball the following season.

It was a good organization. No complaints there. However, par for the course is 4-5 days per week of practices, 2-3 games per week, and many “meetings” at privately-run batting cages to get extra practice time. The early sunsets also resulted in some additional fees to rent out indoor practice facilities until after Daylight Saving Time started. This is the norm. It’s what we do for our kids.

It was insane for our family. Maybe we’re square pegs in round holes, but running around not one but two sons, in two different age groups, all over the city for their practices and games was rough on our family dynamic. It was rough on our sons’ academics. It was rough on our sons’ diets (lots of Jimmy John’s sandwiches). It was rough on our sons’ sleep. They slept well, in that they were well-exercised from baseball, but there simply weren’t enough hours in the day to do everything that needed to occur around the baseball.

Are We Creating “Victims” of Modern Youth Sports?

In most circumstances, I am super-hesitant to consider myself, or my children, victims of “the system.” I usually want to see to it that we’ve done everything in our power on our end before I blame “the system.”

In this case, I think our family has done a lot, but I know for sure we haven’t done everything in our power for our sons to be on a glide path to the high school baseball team. We didn’t enroll our sons in year-round, all-weather travel leagues. We didn’t invest in private lessons. We didn’t move to the neighborhood with the best high school baseball team. Our sons didn’t beg us for these things either. A number of their friends do. Perhaps we’d have made some of those decisions differently if they were asking, but then again, maybe we wouldn’t have.

Parents want to do everything for their kids, right? In theory, I certainly do. But sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way. Because I teach at the undergraduate level, I’ve met several NCAA Division I athletes whose families have had the flexibility to relocate to give them the best opportunities at sports. This is particularly the case with warm-weather-friendly sports such as golf and tennis. But what if those families aren’t in a position to work around their kids’ sports schedules? Did we just crush their dreams?

What do the households with both working parents do?

What do the economically disadvantaged families do?

The answers to these questions exist: working parents negotiate carpooling, even for the interstate travel-teams, and scholarship programs often exist for the economically disadvantaged families, but it’s been proven that there’s still a boost in opportunities for those who can afford—in both time and money—the best of the youth sports programs. Those gaps’ impacts reach further than one might think: including into health, nutrition, and overall success in life.

I like to think our family is fortunate that our sons don’t have to worry as much about those things. Even in a household with two working parents, we have had the flexibility to handle most of what those sorts of sports schedules will throw at us. But not everyone does, and with the future of youth sports heading towards this more elite set of opportunities, I hope we parents, coaches, and sports league administrators will see the errors of our ways.

But my sons don’t want to be one-sport kids. They want a well-rounded life with a combination of sports, academics, and service to their community. I like to think my husband and I helped influence that decision…

…even if it means they’ll never be in Major League Baseball.

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9 thoughts on “What Happened to Youth Sports Just for Fun?

  1. Well said. Definitely concur that the even as programs encourage multi-sport athletes, it’s tolerated only insofar as it doesn’t interfere with that commitment to that team. And don’t forget schools that insist that to make varsity, kids are expected to join premier-level teams off-season, as opposed to JV programs offering sufficient development and coaching. Sports is an industry.

    1. This report from the Aspen Institute that was released last September spoke volumes to me: https://www.aspeninstitute.org/blog-posts/7-charts-show-fix-youth-sports/ … the connection between sports participation and family income is crazy to me. I grew up in a community where school sports were available to EVERYONE — free of cost, free of constraints due to transportation for practices and matches.

      I saw my high school football team play in a state finals game in 2014 on ESPN. It was pretty cool — my school’s team won! However, most of the students on my alma mater’s team didn’t have college plans, while the opposing team from a more affluent part of the state had players with numerous commitments to play for Division I schools. ESPN discussed it a ton during the game. I assure you the fact that my school’s players probably didn’t play organized football outside of the school’s team — due to finances or time/means to travel — was a contributor to that.

    2. That’s definitely true, as it can be very expensive to buy all the necessary equipment for proper training. After reading combatsportevents.com/all-about-punching-bags-what-to-buy-and-how-to-fill/ I was shocked at how expensive a good punching bag can be. Thankfully, it’s a great blog about everything related to fighting sports such as boxing, so I was able to find some great affordable equipment and get my son hooked on boxing, so it’s now somewhat of a family sport.

  2. Your note about finances hits close to home for me–my son played in a local league during elementary school until he aged out. It was a very low-key, everybody plays kind of league. We could not afford the alternatives as he got older–either it was a time and money consuming travel team, or a high-pressure play-to-win league that cost lots of money just for him to be mostly benched. It just as bad for my daughters. Every sport, or sport-related activity costs lots of money, or is constantly running fundraisers (there are only so many times I can sell my family/friends junk, especially when they have children of their own). With three children we also keep running into schedules that conflict with each other and homework time.

    1. Hi Kim, Thanks for reading!

      I hear you absolutely with the financial piece, particularly if you have multiple children. Really gifted youth athletes are now flying around the U.S. for tournaments and in some clubs, the fundraising isn’t even happening. It’s either paid for by the parents (in that the fundraising would take away from practice time) or perhaps there’s a scholarship program available for those athletes whose talent is worth it.

  3. My 4 kids want to try different sports…I know this will get harder for them as they get older and it makes me so sad that if any of them decided they want to learn baseball or hockey at 14, they will be behind and likely won’t get a lot of opportunity to play. I am frustrated with the system but have no ideas how to help change it. What do we do to make sports more accessible and make it ok for an older kid of 14 or 15 to try and learn a new sport and feel supported by the team to do that. My daughter did ballet from 4-7 years old and because of a family move, she stopped ballet and has been doing other dance. At 14 she wants to try ballet again. Time will tell if she will be accepted and encouraged at 14 or if, as someone told me once, “her time has passed” if she hasn’t made her choice by 6 years old.

    1. Hi Karen,

      You raise a good point with some of the other activities that have similar pressures. My nephew does ballet and hearing about what it’s like “out there” for those who are interested in going professional is pretty mind-boggling. I did notice that in ballet the student’s growth is taken into account, such as the right times to start pointe or for males to start working with lifting females.

      Thank you for reading!

  4. Sport is very important in our life if you want to stay healthy and fit you should pay attention on this! Personally I like tennis, very good game to get some fun and reduce stress. I also watch professional matches to get motivation, these WTA rankings looks promising https://sportstennisbet.com/wta-rankings/

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