Opinion | Family

The Youth Sports Myth: You Owe It to Your Child

Hundreds of dollars, hours of intense practice. Is it worth the cost?
The Youth Sports Myth: You Owe It to Your Child
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“I don’t really want to pay four hundred and fifty dollars to drive to practices three nights a week or travel to tournaments on weekends,” Jennifer’s friend Amy bemoaned. “But I feel like I owe it to him.”

And there it was.

Amy had spoken aloud what the nagging, niggling little voice had been hissing in Jennifer’s ear:

You owe it to him.

He deserves it.

All the other kids are doing it.

Other parents are willing to sacrifice for their children to play.

Don’t be selfish.

If you care about him . . .

Things Have Changed Since You Were a Kid

The number of children between the ages of six and seventeen involved in youth sports today is about 21.5 million, according to one estimate. That’s a lot of kids.

Today’s parents feel the pressure—sometimes more than our kids do!—to sign up for whatever will give children the greatest chance to be successful in sports and to keep up with others. The messages from travel team coaches, entrepreneurs, club directors, and other parents are often persuasive: Start young. Specialize early. Develop skills. Condition. Find the right travel team.

But experts in the fields of sports and medicine are telling a different story. According to one report, college coaches, scientists, physicians, and psychologists—professionals who have studied children and physical activity for years—are warning that “extreme, early focus on one sport [is] a problematic approach to developing youth athletes.”

Without ever asking why, we are subjecting our kids to systems that we don’t fully understand and ones that may actually harm them. In the beginning we might register our children for sports with no higher expectations than that they’ll get a little exercise and have fun with friends. Then we might bump them up a league to help them get the kind of “skill development” that will help them succeed against more competitive players. Before we know it, we can’t remember the last weekend our family spent in the same city or one that cost us less than $400. We find ourselves stretched physically, financially, and emotionally. And we wonder who we ended up like this.

The question Jennifer faced still stands: Do you owe your child the experience of playing increasingly competitive youth sports?

Those who know us know the answer: No, you do not.

The Big Picture

We don’t believe that any parent owes this to her child. But Christian parents, in particular, are guided by a set of values that equips us to offer a child a loving yes, at times, and a loving no, at other times. Just as there’s no one-size-fits-all choice for families to make about youth sports, nor is there a spiritual formula to figure it out! But we want you to hear that you already have tools in your toolbox to help you navigate these choices.

We can evaluate athletic opportunities through the lens of our commitment to Christ. Helpful questions to reflect on include:

• Are we loving God and our neighbors? (Matthew 22:37–39)

• Are we, like Jesus, growing in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and others? (Luke 2:52)

• Are we being conformed to the pattern of this world rather than transformed by the renewing of our minds? (Romans 12:2)

• Are we being faithful stewards of our resources? (1 Corinthians 4:2)

• Are we living a sacrificial life of love patterned after Jesus? (Luke 9:24)

Is It Love?

We also want to note that the little voice in our heads that says we “owe” it to our children—giving them an extra edge over others, or at least helping them not fall behind—can often mask itself as the voice of love.

“If you love your child, then you’ll do everything you can to . . .”

The myth sometimes finds traction in the stories of industrious Depression-era grandparents or great-grandparents, who worked their fingers to the bone to provide for their families. Of a kindly aunt who sacrificed the pork chop so that a nephew could eat. Of the dad who took on an early-morning paper route to contribute to the family’s well-being. These were loving adults who wanted their children to do better than they did. They sacrificed so that their children could survive and thrive.

Those are some solid values.

But for many middle-class families today, this is not that day.

More often, for us, the hissing voice insisting that we “owe” our children a particular athletic experience—four consecutive seasons of a sport annually, an elite travel team, a personal trainer—isn’t derived from the same place. Though we convince ourselves that “giving our children everything we can” is predicated on love, more often it is built on fear.

Janine is the mother of a teenage dancer. She recognizes this pulsing anxiety in her parent peers in sports and also in education. “So many people are in such a panic that their kid won’t have a shot at life if they don’t get into the right school or right team or right training program,” she reflects. “I see a lot of people who are completely freaked out about ensuring that their children have access to the kind of professional lives they have, and they’re going to invest any sum in tutors, enrichment, elite sports, and more to make sure.”

That’s not love. That’s fear.

But They Love It

In some cases, parents are the ones pushing to increase a child’s involvement in youth sports. In other cases, children are doing the pushing. In others, it is the coach.

When I (Dave) speak to clubs, organizations, and churches about the realities of youth sports today, someone in the audience, during Q&A or later over coffee, will usually comment, “You know, it’s really difficult, because our kids really enjoy it. They really want to do it.”

If I’m in a good mood, I’ll listen politely.

If I’m not, I’ll go old school on ’em.

“Well,” I’ll offer, “When my son Ryan was little, he often wanted to eat a whole carton of ice cream. But I didn’t let him. I knew that too much of a good thing meant he’d be less likely to enjoy it later.”

I say it with a smile. But they get the message.

We know what’s good for our kids and what’s not. Somehow, when it comes to sports, we lose our good parenting sense. It starts innocently enough, but before you know it, you’re like the family we know who suddenly realized their son was playing on four basketball teams. During the same season! Parents with the best of intentions pick up their kids from soccer practice at school, grab a Big Mac on the way to club practice, and then stop on the way home for open gym for the basketball team.

And statistics are showing that we’re not doing our kids any good by losing our voices when it’s time to say no. Kids who have played hard at young ages are burning out by ages thirteen and fourteen. By the time they get to college—the era in which many parents hope their children will peak in terms of athletics—they have dropped out of the sport altogether. It is certainly a phenomenon that surprised me (Dave) when I become a college athletics director, and it’s a phenomenon to which we need to pay attention.

There’s a time to say yes to playing sports five days a week. There’s a time to say yes to traveling three hours to play in a tournament. There’s a time to invest money into a young person’s athletic improvement. But when we say yes at the wrong time, or to a child who’d benefit from a no, we increase the likelihood that our children will drop out of sports early, suffer from overuse injuries, and miss out on other aspects of childhood.

Do I Owe It?

The question remains. Do you owe it to your child to register him or her for a team every time it is offered?

Is it your parental obligation to give your kid a leg up—or a shin guard up—on other kids?

No. It’s never your obligation.

But we do recognize that seizing opportunities for advancement might be exactly the right thing for your child. As your family life unfolds, it may be that you discover your son lives, eats, and breathes baseball. It gives him great joy. Or maybe you begin to notice that your daughter comes alive when she has the opportunity to play volleyball. The game gives your child delight, and the person you see her becoming gives her great delight.

We simply want you to hear that—because every child is different—there aren’t any formulas. Every parent needs to discern the appropriate amount of involvement that will nurture a child’s development and prevent burnout or injury.

In other words, we encourage you not to owe your child, but to know your child.

This article is from Overplayed: A Parent’s Guide to Sanity in the World of Youth Sports (Herald Press) and is used by permission.

David King is director of athletics at Eastern Mennonite University. He has taught and coached at elementary, middle, and high school levels. Find more of David’s insights on athletics, faith, and parenting on his Overplayed blog.

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