During the Olympics, we often hear stories of committed parents who drive their kids to practice every day at the break of dawn to help them become champions in their sport. These parents are amazing. They are dedicated and loving. But I’m not sure we should all try to be them.
Since my 9-year-old son started playing “organized” sports four years ago, I’ve noticed a trend: the seriousness with which parents and youth coaches take organized athletics for teams with players as young as five years old. In my son’s first (kindergarten) Friday Night Lights football team, the coach had a laminated playbook that the kids were meant to memorize. He’s since graduated to an on-field iPad. But still, you get the point.
In my other son’s first-grade Friday Night Lights team, we’ve already resorted to a “starting quarterback,” a situation that means 90 percent of the team never even learns to throw.
My kids have a sports activity five days each week—either practice or a game—before making it home for the grind that is dinner and homework and bath time. Some of their friends are shuttled from one practice to another—on the same night—before having the chance to take a break. The truth is sports aren’t fun anymore, and kids are quitting because of it.
Research shows the number of kids playing team sports is decreasing. Some blame the parent-driven focus on elite (i.e., brag-worthy) travel clubs for those as young as six or seven. Others blame the intense practice schedule. Either way, we need to show our kids that sports are fun—not forced on them. They help build confidence, leadership, and self-esteem. They help build close relationships and can help us beat depression and other forms of mental illness. But to do so, we need to keep them in perspective:
Step away from the parent circle.
Yes, it can be hard keeping up with the athletic Joneses. When your parent friends are signing their children up for three sports a season, you can feel pressured to jump on board. Step away from the madness. Have the confidence to limit your kids to one sport per season. Not only will it give you more free time, you’ll see which sport your kids actually love. (Really want to get crazy? Take an entire semester off. I promise: the world will keep spinning.)
Your child does not need to master soccer by age six to get a scholarship in college. In fact, if he’s on a travel team at age six, he will likely be burned out by middle school. What’s more, the vast majority of kids playing sports today will not get an athletic scholarship (two percent of high school athletes receive college athletic scholarships)—and there’s nothing wrong with that. Sports are for fun, not full rides.
Are you asking your child to play this sport because it was important to you—a way to live out your childhood dreams? If so, take a moment to step back. This is your child’s experience. Forcing your dreams and expectations on him or her will breed a sense of anxiety that could last a lifetime—especially if they are not gifted with the same athletic genes.
Coaches might set practices three times per week, but you don’t need to attend all of them. As a parent, you have last rights on deciding how much is too much for your child. Is it okay to devote five nights to sports, rather than having some simple down time? That’s a family decision, not a league one.
Be sure to touch base with your child regularly to ensure they are still having fun. After all, that is what youth sports are supposed to be about.
Today, youth sports is a $7 billion industry. That doesn’t mean you have to support it. Help your child stay grounded by making mindful decisions that will support their love of the game—and themselves.
Author: Jess Stonefield
Image: USAG Humphreys/Flickr
Editor: Travis May
Copy Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Social Editor: Waylon Lewis