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Why We Really Put Our Kids in Sports


Mar 14 2016
Our goodhearted support prioritizes athleticism more than we think.

When my youngest son finished second at his first-ever cross-country meet, I nearly wept with joy. After years of club soccer and dabbling in lacrosse, baseball, and basketball, my 13-year-old kid was competing in my sport—the one I’d been doing for almost 35 years—and succeeding. What could be better?

As his season progressed, I became keenly interested in his races, split times, and personal records. I helped as a course monitor for local meets, so I could watch his races more closely. When he finished a race, my first question was, “What was your time?” I already knew the answer, of course, having used a stopwatch to track his performance, which I would religiously check later against the state rankings for middle school cross-country.

In other words, I had become one of those parents.

If you’ve spent any time around youth sports, as a kid or as an adult, you probably know what I mean by those parents: the ones who seem overly invested in their children’s success and follow their progeny from game to game and even practice to practice. They spend exorbitant amounts on league fees, equipment, and travel to competitions, barking commands from the bleachers at coaches, referees, and their children.

Such over-invested parents are at the center of the documentary Trophy Kids (2013), now available on Netflix. The film follows families whose lives revolve around a packed schedule of practices, weekend tournaments, conditioning sessions, and highlight tapes. These young athletes and their parents are chasing the dream of a college scholarship and a shot at the big leagues, yet Trophy Kids shows so starkly the costs of pursuing this dream. With such intense pressure and focus, these young people risk losing their childhoods, fulfilling relationships with peers and parents, sometimes even their physical wellbeing.

It’s easy to see the subjects of a movie like Trophy Kids, or even the extreme examples in our circles of friends, and think that we are nothing like them. Most parents will voice more modest outcomes for our children when we sign them up for sports leagues. We say want them to be healthy and fit, and to learn the values athletics can foster, like cooperation, perseverance, and confidence. We even assert that we care only that our children have fun, rather than whether they succeed as athletes.

And then, our actions betray us. Yelling at referees, coaching from the bleachers, tracking our children’s stats, and appearing entirely too disappointed when they fail to live up to our expectations—we indeed care about their success and performance.

Related Topics:Parenting; Sports; Youth
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