Saturday soccer games, Monday night basketball practice and summers spent playing tee ball are the stuff of which many American children’s lives are made. Three out of every four United States families with kids over the age of six have at least one child in organized sports. Nothing is as American as baseball and apple pie, so you better believe many kids have spent hours on running the bases to compensate for the American tradition of overeating.
Youth sports cause a lot of good in the lives of kids. They teach dedication, teamwork and time management. Sports make exercising fun for kids and can help them build confidence. Most kids create bonds with their teammates and form priceless memories. When a kid has a coach they trust and the loving support of their parents, youth sports provide an excellent foundation for becoming a successful adult.
It’s when the environment that a child athlete participates in is unsupportive or hyper-competitive that sports become a negative experience.
Every member of my family played two sports at the collegiate level. They all had great experiences with individual sports like track and golf, but had less positive team sport experiences. My brother and sister are both over a decade older than me and grew up traveling on the weekends to play Mid America Youth Basketball (MAYB). My brother played baseball and my sister played volleyball. They both tried pretty much every sport out there.
When I came along ten years later, my parents discouraged me from most organized team sports. I played soccer until I hit the age when teams began to travel, but that is the only competitive team sport I have ever played.
I would always ask my parents to sign me up for volleyball or softball, but they never did. These mainstream American sports require an intense amount of time. Weekends are filled by traveling to tournaments and weekdays are ended with several hours of practice. My parents didn’t like the intensely competitive nature of these team sports– the politics of parents pushing for their 10 year-olds to get more playing time, the pressure put on the kids to perform – and didn’t want me in that environment.
That isn’t to say I wasn’t encouraged to be physically active– I swam in the summers, danced non-competitively until middle school and have played tennis since I was seven. By not spending every weekend at a basketball tournament, I had time to pursue a wide variety of interests. I played the clarinet, did theater, was active in 4-H and went to art and space camps in the summer. I loved to write and read, both of which are skills that have helped me far more in school than being great at free-throws.
Putting pressure on kids to perform athletically at a young age can set them up to struggle with anxiety and self-esteem issues. Young children don’t yet understand the concept of winning or why it would be important and play sports to have fun, but their parents believe that their child enjoys the sport because of the possibility of winning.
I had a middle school tennis team mate who would get paid by her parents for every match she won, which led her to make many questionable line calls. I know girls who wouldn’t want to go home after they lost or played badly – one even had a letter waiting for her from her father after a bad loss about what a failure she was. If you go to a grade school basketball game, odds are you’ll witness an angry parent yell at a young referee.
I find this kind of behavior from parents to be despicable. Sports are not the most important thing in a child’s life. A kid has their whole life to be occupied by constant time commitments and the pressure to be the best. Childhood is a time to have fun and pursue a variety of passions.
I will want my kids to learn an instrument, to be active in service organizations and to try out everything they have ever wanted to try. I want them to have the time to go to summer camp and to be creative and have fun. They shouldn’t be tied down to the pressure of one day being a high school basketball star whose career will end in four years– or eight, if they play in college – and then has to find a new skill to bring them joy.
I still will want my kids to try out a sport. Being a tennis player was one of the best parts of my life. My favorite memories are of my dad and I playing tennis together or laughing with my teammates on the bus. I had an incredible tennis coach who never once raised his voice at any of us for losing– as long as we put in the effort and carried ourselves admirably. He valued us as people more than he valued us as players. Don’t get me wrong, he also wanted us to win and I loved winning. The losses stung, but no loss could ever take away my love for the game.
It is the responsibility of parents and coaches to stop taking the love of the game away from kids before they even get a chance to develop it. We should teach them that no win is worth sacrificing everything for. A trophy cannot replace time with family and a medal for one sport is not worth missing out on the variety of pursuits that life has to offer. Most importantly, we should teach our kids that when you sacrifice your integrity for a win, you don’t win anything at all.