Not long ago, I was invited to speak at the annual banquet for an “elite” youth hockey organization. Before dinner, the organization’s president mentioned how he and his neighbor, another hockey dad, had seen the need for a top-tier program in their area, and how much planning and money it had required to create one. He rhapsodized about the championships his teams had won in their first two years of operation. He also said his 6-year-old son and his neighbor’s boy were hockey-crazed best friends — or at least they used to be. His neighbor’s son was not selected for the mite team that first year, and the two men and their boys had not spoken to each other since.
In brief, that’s exactly what’s wrong with youth sports. Too much money, too much parent involvement, and too many brokenhearted 6-year-olds. (Not to mention too many well-meaning adults who have no clue about all of the above.)
Perhaps the professionalism that has invaded youth sports is related to the Bruins, Patriots, Red Sox, and Celtics all ringing up championships over the past decade. Hey, I want some of that, says Overzealous Sports Dad, jumping up from his couch. But single-sport specialization, the privatization of youth leagues, and the ranking and cutting of young children have become widespread. These are not positive trends, and coaches, educators, community leaders, and parents should take heed.
Three out of four American families with school-aged children have at least one playing an organized sport — a total of about 45 million kids. By age 15, as many as 80 percent of these youngsters have quit, according to the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine. One reason is the gap between the child’s desire to have fun and the misguided notion among some adults that their kids’ games are a miniature version of grown-up competitions, where the goal is to win. In 20 years of coaching youth and high school sports, I can say unequivocally that adult expectations are the number one problem. As we approach summer, when the living is supposed to be easy, too many families are searching the Internet for a private batting instructor, a summer hockey program, an expensive strength camp, and that elusive AAU coach who can get their 11-year-old to improve her jump shot. This is a misguided attempt to accelerate a process that may not even be occurring, since most young athletes will never reach the elite level.
When I was growing up in Methuen, we organized our own football, hockey, and baseball teams. Any kid who had a football helmet, a pair of Bobby Orr Rally skates, or a first baseman’s mitt could play. We contacted teams from other neighborhoods and played entire seasons without our parents having anything to do with it. My friends and I even staged our own tennis tournaments at the public courts. (The baseball players swore it helped with their timing at the plate.)
Except for renting the ice at the local rink, and a set of hockey jerseys we pitched in to buy, it was free. We played for the love of it. Indeed, many of us went on to play high school and college varsity sports.
Maybe you’re thinking: So this guy went to grammar school with Huck Finn, good for him. But how’s little Eliza going to get a scholarship if she’s not throwing heat? But the fact is, approximately 1 percent of high school athletes will receive a Division 1 scholarship. And those scholarships, on average, are worth much less than the family’s investment in private lessons, sports camps, and other training.
The writer Edna St. Vincent Millay once noted that life is not one damn thing after another, it’s one damn thing over and over. That applies to specialization in youth sports, too. Hockey season, which once ran from Halloween to St. Patrick’s Day, now starts in late August and wheezes to a halt in April. Then there’s 10 weeks of “spring hockey,” summer hockey camps, and so on. Basketball, soccer, baseball, and gymnastics — same deal. I’ve seen many promising teen athletes “retire” at a time when their interest in sports should be peaking.
Some kids are sick of playing, and some are sick of playing in pain. A 2013 study of 1,200 young athletes showed those who concentrated on a single sport were 70 percent to 93 percent more likely to be injured than those who played multiple sports.
At that hockey banquet, I said adults must set their egos aside and remember to let the kids have fun. And to do that, we need to return youth sports to the neighborhood, where they belong.
This summer, encourage your children to go fishing, play mini golf, and invite their pals to shoot hoops in the driveway. Have them visit the library, and loaf around in the backyard chewing on blades of grass. And keep in mind that the interior experience of playing a sport, the beauty and the joy of it, is sovereign territory and belongs to the kids themselves.
BY THE NUMBERS
1 in 6,000
Estimated number of high-school football players who will make it to the NFL
2.5 in 10,000
High-school basketball players who will make it to the NBA.
Jay Atkinson runs the Methuen Fun Hockey League “Skate & Read” program and is the author, most recently, of Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org .