At 10 a.m. last Saturday, Kelly Heney packed her Chevy Suburban with soccer equipment and drove two of her sons, Seamus, 10, and Liam, 8, from their home in Hamilton to a game in neighboring Wenham. While she was helping coach her boys to a win in the team’s season finale, Bill Heney, her husband, stayed home with the couple’s other three sons, Aidan, 13, Cormac, 5, and Nolan, 3.
For the Heney family, the weekend sports schedule was just beginning, though.
At 1:30 p.m. Kelly (coaching) and Cormac (playing) rushed off to another soccer game, followed by a flag football contest (Liam) and a hockey game (Bill coaching, Cormac playing) in Newburyport. Save for a wrist injury to Aidan and the winding down of the soccer season, the weekend would have looked a lot like the previous one, which was crammed with 15 games and practices that began at 5 p.m. Friday and did not end until early Sunday afternoon.
“Sports are what we do. And it’s cheaper than juvenile detention,” joked Bill Heney, an attorney in North Beverly, who has helped start a youth hockey program, the North Shore Ice Hawks, that reserves ice time in nearby towns only, and at reasonable (i.e. not predawn) hours. Its family-friendly mantra: “More time on the ice, less time in the car.”
The Heneys are hardly alone in having to play athletic air-traffic controller, juggling schedules for multiple kids playing multiple sports or on multiple teams (school, town, club, travel, AAU) for a single sport, all taking place at different times and at different fields, gyms, or rinks, some far-flung.
Couple these complex logistics with concerns over potential injuries to young bodies, behavior-challenged parents, and the overscheduling of kids, then add the cost of team fees, equipment, private lessons, camps, clinics, and travel expenses. One might reasonably ask: Why do so many families make such all-in commitments?
The answer is, legions of parents maintain that the benefits of participating in youth sports — physical fitness, learning about teamwork, reducing video screen time, etc. — outweigh the negatives.
Many experts agree, at least up to a point.
John O’Sullivan, author of “Changing the Game: The Parent’s Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports Back to Our Kids,” believes that youth sports are valuable, both from a healthy lifestyle perspective and because they expose kids to “core family values,” as he puts it.
But as sports programs have become more organized, more multilayered, and more specialized, O’Connor acknowledges, seasons have lengthened and families have scrambled to keep up.
“It’s created an added burden on parents to get their kids there,” he observes. “Most parents I know are happy to deal with it, but it is a logistical challenge.”
Many families combine old-school methods, such as posting a calendar listing all their sports dates on the refrigerator, with newer, more high-tech methods to keep track of everything. The Heneys, for instance, regularly check town team websites for scheduling updates. Marcia Pereira of Medway, the mother of two sports-active children, relies on Cozi, a free iPhone app with a shared calendar feature to which all her family has access.
No iPhone app, though, can reduce the amount of travel involved in youth sports these days once kids start playing at a level beyond beginner.
Business school professor and author Mark Hyman, whose books include “The Most Expensive Game in Town: The Rising Cost of Youth Sports and the Toll on Today’s Families,” generally believes in youth sports, too, as O’Sullivan does, if not in the outsize expectations some parents place on them, whether it be earning a college scholarship or even gaining a shot at professional sports, which very, very few young athletes ever do.
Hyman takes note, though, of how radically the sports landscape has changed in recent times, generating far more options — and complications — for modern families.
While he was growing up, Hyman says, “we played in our own neighborhood, against neighborhood kids. The idea of driving to a neighboring state to play a game was not really considered. As a result, the time commitment for parents was much more manageable.
“Now you have families traveling virtually every weekend, not only to a neighboring town but sometimes hundreds of miles away. It creates tensions that families didn’t face much 30 years ago.”
Pereira describes her family sports commitments as “a juggling act, always a battle” to make everything run smoothly. Both she and her husband work full-time, and Pereira also serves on the board of her local Pop Warner football league.
The couple’s son Marek, 11, plays football, basketball, and lacrosse and wants to add baseball next spring, she says. Daughter Sasha, 6, has already taken up cheerleading, gymnastics, swimming, dance, and softball.
“Fortunately, we live in a great community where a lot of people are willing to pick up other kids and take them to practice,” Pereira says.“There’s no being shy about asking, though. And you have to be willing to reciprocate.”
Pereira, who drives a Mini Cooper, says friends tease her about deliberately picking a car that’s highly impractical for hauling around football players and their bulky equipment. “I didn’t plan it that way, though,” she says with a laugh.
Beyond the organizational issues are the strains on the ties that bind. Having multiple kids involved in multiple sports can be like installing a hurry-up offense in a family playbook already bulging with other obligations.
There are carpools to be coordinated and child-care coverage to be organized. Sacrifices in “family time” are a routine part of the playbook. Which parent should attend which child’s game when conflicts arise, as they inevitably do?
Moreover, when away games are far away, these decisions can get even tougher. Childhood may be fleeting, after all, but so are the hours in a busy family weekend.
“Our rule is, if both of us can go to a game, we go together — with any kids who are available, although we don’t make them watch,” says Christine Gillis of Ashland about how she and her husband try to stay involved while preserving as much family-together time as possible. Her four kids (Larry Jr., 14; Natalie, 13; Julia, 12; and Matthew, 9) are active in an impressive array of sports, including football, lacrosse, basketball, track and field, soccer, swimming, gymnastics, and wrestling. Larry Gillis, her husband, has coached youth sports as well.
Home games take priority over travel games, according to Gillis. When games overlap, mom and dad do their best to divide and conquer. With so many kids playing that many sports, though, blanket coverage is often impossible.
That being the case, Gillis has resigned herself to missing some of her kids’ games without feeling guilty about it, as many parents might.
“I don’t want them performing sports for me anyway, but for themselves,” she says.
“It is a tap dance,” says Kevin Breen of North Andover, whose two sons — Connor, 14, and Jack, 11 — play or have played football, basketball, and baseball. Breen has coached both boys in town sports and serves as president of his local Little League. They’ve also joined AAU baseball teams that train indoors all winter long, then play as many as four games per weekend during the spring. Come summer, each team travels to at least one out-of-state tournament, requiring mom and dad to book hotel space and plan accordingly.
“Basketball almost feels like a season off to us,” says Breen.
Paying for all these commitments requires making other lifestyle choices, he adds. “I’m driving around in a car with 130,000 miles on it. And for us, summer vacation could be a hotel room in Rhode Island rather than a family trip to Disney World.”
Bill Heney concedes that managing a sports-packed calendar may not work for every household. “It’s a time commitment and a money commitment, but to us, it’s worth it,” he says. “What makes it special is, it’s something we all love and can do together as a family.”