For the Love of the Game

For the Love of the Game

Youth sports: a chance to have fun, learn new skills and play with friends.

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound quite right anymore.  I’m new to youth sports.  I opted to take dance as a young child and really made that my extracurricular activity (as they used to be called).  But, my daughter has this desire to try new things, which I love.  So, it’s off to soccer we go this fall.  She is VERY excited, but I’m nervous.  Nervous because of those parents.  You know the ones I’m talking about — you may even be one.  And, if you are, you may want to stop reading… I might step on some toes.

Back in the spring, I was at my nephew’s ballgame.  His team was up to bat and the game was tied — tension is running HIGH!  As the final inning is unfolding, there are 2 parents there who are getting really riled up and begin shouting from the bleachers.  Things like “come on, you gotta hit that”, “you can’t drop a fly ball kid”, or “what are you doing, send him home”… and my favorite “if you can’t coach right let me come out there!”  Did I mention when I say ballgame, I mean t-ball.  I mean kindergartners.  It was all I could do not to come out of my seat and give them a piece of my mind.  These boys are 5 to 7 years old, some of them putting on gloves for the first time, and you’re yelling at them because they drop a pop fly?  Suddenly, I’m really beginning to rethink soccer.

See, I signed up my daughter for soccer because she wanted to try it, I encourage physical activity and I believe she should learn the art of sportsmanship (something a few parents ought to learn).  I want her to learn the value in losing and failing and doing better next time.  I want her to experience trying your hardest and squeaking out a win.  In my mind, I imagine her first goal and the excitement she’ll experience.  My fear is the first 20 or so goals that she misses and some overzealous parent yells at her that “you can’t miss that”.  Um, yes she can… even David Beckham doesn’t make EVERY goal.

I recently read an article which studied successful collegiate athletes and professional athletes over a 30 year period.  The results of the study are fascinating.  When asked what their worst memory of youth sports was the overwhelming response was: the ride home from the game.  They detailed their parents’ frustration, anger, behavior and their inability to just let it go.  On the flipside, when asked about their favorite memory, the greatest response was that of “when my parents said they loved watching me play.”  Quite honestly, I’m not sure I’ve ever overheard this phrase coming from a parent at any of the ball fields I’ve visited.  If anyone utters this phrase, it’s a grandparent.

Obviously, not every parent is guilty of this behavior.  But, in an effort to avoid being THAT parent, I’ve done some reading on youth sports parenting.  Here’s what I’ve read and am trying to take to heart.  I encourage you to do the same.

Your kid probably isn’t going pro.  Accept this.  Their ability at the age of 5 or 6 has no bearing positive or negative on how they will perform athletically in the future.  They may improve over time or their athletic abilities may peak at 7 — it could just really go either way.  Chances are when you’re sitting next to a parent who goes on incessantly about how great their child is at a particular sport, they’re trying to convince everyone else of the talent they believe they see in their child.  Just smile and nod, but don’t let them make you feel like you’re somehow less of a parent because they cannot see the talent in your obviously gifted child.  With the idea in mind that your child probably isn’t going pro — don’t forget to let them enjoy other activities besides sports (arts, outdoor sports, church, etc.).  There really is more to life, believe it or not.  I always cringe when I see young teenagers who have to sit on the sidelines of life with their friends, because Heaven forbid they actually be a kid and accidently break a bone or sprain an ankle before the “big game”.  (But a concussion in the line of “duty” is part of the game.) I always wonder what fun they’ve missed out on — riding waves at the beach, playing tag football afterschool with friends, or going on a trip with their youth group.

Don’t take it all so seriously.  Watching t-ball or instructional league soccer is like watching dogs play fetch — they all want the ball and they all run after it.  It’s a game; they’re learning.  Don’t expect your child to  know the finer points of in-field flies or the proper position a tight-end should hold in flag football.  It’s called instructional league for a reason.  Some of these kids just learned to tie their shoes, and you expect them to understand a flea flicker?  Keep your perspective.  For older children, remember that they’re just that — children.  I’ve read articles written by Emergency Room doctors detailing how far parents are pushing their young teenagers physically by making them play when bones are not yet completely healed or they’ve had a recent concussion.  They claim it’s all for their kids and their love of the game, but the most cited reason for teenagers dropping out of sports entirely is because “it’s not fun anymore”.  Yeah, I imagine year round sports and playing with injuries to a still developing body isn’t that much fun.  If you’re interested in knowing about some professional athletes didn’t play youth sports or started playing them late, you should read this article.  It gives 15 great examples of professional athletes that either didn’t play youth sports, started late, or were successful in a sport other than the one they play now.

If you have to take valium before a game, it’s time to give it up. There’s really no need to elaborate on this one.

Unless you coach, your child isn’t going to play as much as the coach’s kid.  Accept it.  Okay, you may have a right to be upset about this one.  Youth sports has its own set of politics.  It’s ugly.  It’s often unfair.  But, it’s reality.  The best thing to do is either make the decision to coach a team yourself or have a meeting with the coach and team ahead of the season and lay out the expectations.  If the coach is operating in violation of the league guidelines, speak to the commissioner of your league.  But, don’t scream obscenities from the sidelines at the coach for leaving your child as a benchwarmer.

Only about 1% of children who participate in Recreational League or School sports will receive a college scholarship.  I hear a lot of parents say that they are pushing and developing their child’s athletic abilities to help their child’s chances of receiving a college scholarship.  And, honestly with the cost of public education rising each year, I can’t say that I blame them for looking at alternative means of payment.  However, when you take their chances of receiving a scholarship into consideration and the cost of these sports, you kind of have sit back and do some math.  I know some people who participate in year round sports including travel leagues.  They spend on average $600/month on travel expenses and private lessons (this is just average).  If you took even say $400 per month and put that in a savings account starting at age 8, you would have approximately $57,000 plus interest saved up toward college.  Just let that sink in for a moment.  I have also found in speaking to parents whose children are heading off to college next year, they underestimated how much college applications look for prospective students to have participated in several different types of extra curricular activities including sports, academic clubs and achievements, as well as artistic interests.  Don’t let the difference between your child going to the college of theirs dreams be participating in a missions trip to Haiti, or making it into the National Honor Society, or winning a local art award because they were completely consumed with one sport.  Which brings me to my next finding….

Let your child play more than one sport.  More and more medical studies are showing that children are suffering injuries from overuse. Surgeries that were once only needed for professional athletes due to excessive overuse of the same muscles and ligaments are now being performed on 11 and 12-year-olds.  I can imagine that in a world where we emphasize winning at all costs, it’s actually very easy to get sucked into the world of going to any length necessary to give your child every advantage possible — private lessons, special equipment, elite training camps.  But, at what cost — elbows surgery on your 12 year old pitcher because he’s overusing his ligaments?  I read an article about the “insanity” of youth sports today, and it made an interesting point about Cal Ripken.  Cal Ripken is a Baseball Hall of Famer, and he never played baseball year round until he signed with the Baltimore Orioles.  He played baseball in high school, but he was also an all-state soccer player!  Soccer helped him to become very light on his feet which increased his success as a short stop.  Medical professionals and athletic trainers highly recommend cross-training to strengthen and condition all of your muscles.  They work together and support one another.  So maybe skip fall ball this year, and let your son try football or your daughter try swimming.  It’s important to their mindset and their bodies to mix it up.

It is supposed to be fun.  Sadly, some children get heckled so much as a young child in recreation league sports that they drop out.  I wonder if this could be tied back to the overwhelming childhood obesity epidemic.  With the youth sports mindset being shifted to a “winning above all else”, it leaves little room for the even average player to get on the field.  Cheer for your child.  Cheer for their teammates, no matter what their ability.  Wear team colors.  Paint your face.  Do whatever makes you happy in terms of supporting your child’s team, but make it fun for them!  Remember, don’t emphasize the sport over sportsmanship.

Hopefully I didn’t offend too many people, and perhaps you’ll even think over these findings.  I’ll be on the sidelines this year cheering on my little soccer player.  If you see me exhibiting any of these characteristics, feel free to call me on it!  See you on the field!