Youth Sports: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly - Page 2

Author // Louise Kuo Habakus, M.A.

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Youth Sports: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
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Or Is This All About Me?

When I think about Nick’s pitching episode, I wince. I feel self-conscious around the other parents. I want to tell them that Nick had shoulder pain and didn’t tell anyone. I play a bad game in my head. It’s called “What if?”

What if it happens again?

What if he doesn’t get another chance?

What if he doesn’t make the travel team next year?

My son was devastated for one day and the moment passed. Nick can talk about it calmly. He still loves baseball. He still wants to pitch. I, on the other hand, am perseverating. What does my attachment to Nick’s performance say about me?

When a response is disproportionate to the event, it means there’s something else going on. I get it. Here’s what I now understand. When my boys were little, they were sick. Doctors painted a grim prognosis. I rejected their pat conclusions but I was terrified. I was on my knees. I bargained with God.

This was a long time ago. They’re well now. But the fear never entirely goes away.

When my boys are doing well in sports, it means the 10 doctors who confidently told me that my children would never live normal lives were impressively, fabulously, extravagantly…




Wide of the mark.

Boy-oh-boy, does it feel great to write those words.

When my boys are doing well in sports, it is a final affirmation that they aren’t sick anymore.

Whoa. That’s a lot to put on a game. That’s a lot to put on a kid. I am grateful it only took me a year to figure it out. Youth sports can become an arena in which parents inadvertently act out their own issues. Knowing this helps me to keep perspective and enjoy my son’s games. I wish I was done but I’m not. There’s more. Some

experts are raising important concerns about youth sports.

It can be ugly.

Something's Not Right

The sensational media headlines about athletes are harrowing:

  • Lance Armstrong Doping Scandal

  • Cheating Scandal Dulls Pride in Athletics at Harvard

  • Soccer Violence: Referees Under Attack

  • Top Ten Pro Athletes Charged with Murder

Doping, cheating, violence, murder? What’s going on?

Bad news about sports is not limited to professional athletes. Educators, social workers, psychologists, and other professionals who work with children have been sounding the alarm:

  • Steubenville Football Coach Knew Athletes Raped Girl, 16

  • 5 Youths Held in Sex Assault on Mentally Impaired Girl, 17

  • Kids and Competitive Sports, Too Much Pressure?

  • Heads Up: Concussion in Youth Sports

I read a helpful book: Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids. Author Mark Hyman is a former high school baseball player. As coach to his own two sons, he admits to poor judgment calls and outright mistakes.

There’s Reason for Concern

“Are youngsters from 12 years of age sufficiently mature and emotionally stable to the point where they should be engaging in an experience which has the potentialities for traveling 2,000 miles to play a game of baseball before eight or nine thousand spectators?”New York Times op-ed, 1952

Professionals are highlighting the “dark side” of youth sports, including:

It’s about adults. Youth sports are becoming professionalized. They are increasingly designed to meet the emotional, entertainment, and financial needs of adults. Did you know there’s an official Little League World Series banana, detergent, sugary breakfast cereal, and popsicle? ESPN broadcasts 32 LLWS games from South Williamsport, PA. The stadium and surrounding areas accommodate over 40,000 fans. The top 10 Major League Baseball teams ranked by 2012 attendance averaged 35,899 fans per game.

Adults sometimes teach bad lessons. Parents admit that watching their kids play makes them anxious, irritable and angry. There’s a lot of yelling. Parents yell at their kids. Coaches yell at the kids. Parents yell at coaches. Parents irritate coaches. Coaches yell at officials. Parents assault officials and each other.

It’s elitist. A lot of attention is being paid to a small group of talented children. Less-capable players are benched more often. Many kids don’t play or quit prematurely due to performance anxiety or pressure. In 1958, the American Medical Association warned that catering to talented players “helps to perpetuate physical unfitness among the rest of children.” Seems we missed that admonition.

It’s too intense. Children used to start rec sports at 7 or 8. Now it’s routinely at 4 or 5 and as young as eighteen months. They play year-round. Some coaches demand 3- to 4-hour practices a day, six or seven days a week. Kids lose their enjoyment of the sport. They need extended breaks. Sports psychologist Richard Ginsburg cautions that a child that age can’t differentiate his performance from who he is as a person. The National Education Association warns that high pressure elements give kids an exaggerated importance of sports.

It’s dangerous. Children are getting injured at an unprecedented rate; 3.5 million children under 14 are treated for sports injuries annually. Nearly half are overuse injuries and more than half are preventable. Youth sports concussion clinics are “mushrooming,” says The New York Times. Drastic surgical reconstruction on children is no longer rare, including the “Tommy John” surgery (UCL reconstruction), which was originally intended as an extraordinary measure to prolong a professional athlete’s career.

Parents are aggressive. Some parents spend big bucks and devote hours equivalent to a full-time job to boost their children’s sports careers. As time, expenses and expectations rise, it becomes more difficult for kids to walk away or to switch sports. Adults ignore warning signs and keep injured kids in the game. Parents are afraid to rock the boat with coaches. The Holy Grail is a college athletic scholarship, which is extremely rare.

Children don’t have perspective. In an intense sports environment, there can be distorted relationships and opportunities to exploit vulnerabilities. Parents pursue “the best” coaches, coaches become surrogate parents, and children can be too eager to please. Children see how invested parents are in their success. Hyman says some children even contemplate suicide rather than confront parental disappointment.

Youth Sports Needs Grounded Parents

When it comes to sports, I’m no expert, on or off the field. But the research is pretty clear on some of the basics. Parents should take charge. Notes to self:

Chill out. When anything, including sports, takes on an outsize importance, there’s probably something else going on. It’s probably more about me than I realize. Parents can and should introduce options, but the motivation to play and excel must come from the child. My emotional needs do not matter.

Pay attention. If I think something is wrong, something is probably wrong—even if my child says everything is OK. I need to watch for problems with sleep, food, grades, drugs, friends, teammates, coaches, injuries, depression, anxiety and more. I should talk with others, get input, and ask for advice to help keep things in perspective.

It should be fun. I know when my kids aren’t having fun. Experts recommend that kids play a variety of sports. Obsession is dangerous and burnout sidelines many talented kids.

Tread carefully. When people come together for any purpose, there’s politics, including complaints about “Daddy ball.” Tricky stuff.

Moderation is a virtue. Sometimes less is more. I shouldn’t sacrifice to the point that it creates resentment in other family members or skews our priorities.

It’s always a choice. “Do you want to play this season?” Our kids need to know that we’ll support them either way.

Update: This article was originally published in 2013. Since then, Ian switched to basketball and has discovered longdistance running. Nick continues with baseball and is also adding basketball this winter. There are often tryouts of one kind or another. Regardless of the outcome, my kids will be fine. It’s their mom who must remember some important lessons!

Pathways Issue 44 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #45.

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