Childhood Sports: Too Organized, Too Intrusive

 Increasingly the couples sitting in front of me to talk about their marital struggles are discussing the strain of their children’s sports schedules. Sometimes their children are still preschoolers! Organized sports for children have become the 800-pound gorilla in the lives of many families. It sits wherever it wants. Parents are either seduced by a false sense of its importance or swept along by its popularity. Even those who sense something is wrong believe they can’t, or shouldn’t, do anything about it. 

The problem has grown over the past few decades because programs began lowering the starting ages. When my children were growing up, nothing formal began before they were eight. Now many programs have peewee versions that practically start shortly after children are able to run around. Did someone decide this is what children needed? Or did someone decide this would generate more income for community programming? The net results, in my opinion, are all negative. Children have become less and less able to play sports on their own – it is rare for a bunch of kids to meet in a yard or at a local field and play a sport for a few hours just for fun. Families suffer from even more chaotic schedules. The children who are not athletic, or just not interested, are made to feel even more like misfits. Parental obsession about their child’s ability level has intensified. Can someone explain the redeeming virtues of this expanded programming?

 Alison and Frank have a six-year-old son and an eight-year-old daughter. This past winter the son played indoor soccer (making soccer a year round sport now) and basketball. The daughter played hockey and also soccer. Hockey is probably the worst offender. Because of limited rink time, practices and games are at hours that normally we wouldn’t let our children go over and play at a friend’s house! What are they doing at 6:30 am or 8:30 pm mushing around the ice with equipment that is not only very expensive but sometimes weighs nearly as much as the child! Alison and Frank have a struggling marriage. A key problem is that they cannot find time to be alone for conversations and lovemaking. A significant contributing factor is their children’s absurd sports’ schedule. I listened to their description of the process and agreed – there was no time, except when they were collapsing from exhaustion. Again, I ask who is really benefiting from this?

 Certainly it is not about teaching skills. Most of these children have not developed physically to the point where true integration of complex physical skills can either happen or will hold over time. Many can’t even focus their attention sufficiently to learn what is being taught. Of course well-meaning parents who have limited knowledge about teaching athletics to young children are teaching most of these children. Some of the leagues claim they are non-competitive and focus on teaching good sportsmanship and team play. Then why not just have a couple of parents show up at a field, throw some equipment on the ground, and let the kids play. No teams. Not even rules. Just play.

 Additional concerns about the early onset of and over-reliance on organized sports include: the elimination of children of mixed ages playing together; the late-developers being labeled as inadequate (Michael Jordan is not the only professional athlete to have not made his high school team.); and the parental obsession about their children becoming stars. The latter is especially problematic. Some children become well coordinated earlier than others do. Some grow tall or fill out more quickly. These children are often “stars” at these early ages and they develop a false sense of entitlement that is rampant in this country’s infatuation with its athletes. It becomes particularly problematic when the parents are caught up in it.

 Rage about an 8-year-old not being selected for an all-star, traveling, or higher level team is quite common. Parents seem to think their child’s future is being ruined by these decisions, mistakenly believing that these young “stars” are going to be playing at the same level by high school or even get a college sports scholarship! It certainly has contributed to some frightful acts of brutality on the part of parents at their children’s games, and the incidents are occurring more frequently and getting more violent.

 Please stop and think about it. In a town with 5000 children and maybe several hundred playing a particular sport, only a tiny percentage ever make a varsity team and maybe one or two each year, in each sport, might get an athletic scholarship. My observations over the years suggest that many of those ultimate varsity players haven’t even shown up on the radar screen in elementary school.

 Parents need to insist that they and their children get back to something more normal and developmentally appropriate. Eliminate organized sports for children until AT LEAST age eight, maybe ten. This will free up fields and rinks so those schedules can be more reasonable. Limit the length of seasons and the overlap of sports. Insist on coaches being trained. Never allow coaches to make attendance at practices or games a priority over other family needs. Don’t agree to any schedule that is obviously inappropriate for your child (or for yourselves). Encourage neighborhood children to just play together in mixed-age group recreational sports. If you have a child who has special talents, you work with him at the early stages, and when the skill level grows beyond you, a summer camp program is sufficient until the child reaches an age where it is appropriate to be on competitive teams with competent coaching. Parents complain their children are growing up too fast. This is one small step to slow things down and put some quality time back into family life.