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On organized youth sports

September 11, 2017

This is a true story: When I was about 5 1/2 years old, my family moved from New Haven, Connecticut to Ann Arbor, Michigan.  On the first or second day, my parents were likely doing whatever it is that parents do when they move hundreds of miles to a new house, and I was bored.  I wanted to go outside and explore the neighborhood.  My parents said that that was fine, but that I could not cross the street; I had to stay on the block.  And away I went.

Can you imagine if a parent did that today?  The State child protection agency would almost certainly be called in.  As it happens, I walked a few houses down our street, and came upon a 5-year-old boy who was playing outside his house. We started to play and quickly become best friends.

If you are my age, you doubtless remember summer as a time when you just left the house (“be back by dark!”) and found a friend or two or seven, and just… *played*.  Sometimes it was baseball (no uniforms and no umpires; we had to police ourselves, and sometimes that ended up in a fight, but we quickly were friends again), sometimes it was just a game we made up.  The role of adults was marginal, at best (until lunch time, when we’d go to someone’s house and that kid’s mom (it was always the mom) would fix us something to eat). We didn’t need grown-ups.  We didn’t want grown-ups.

In the last 20 years, I have coached youth soccer, basketball, football, baseball and softball, and have coached cross-country at the middle school level and track at the high school level.  My philosophy about youth sports is simple: the worst thing about youth sports is grown-ups.

Meanwhile, according to this article in the Washington Post, participation in youth sports (particularly in the four core youth sports of football, basketball, soccer and baseball) is declining and there is a pronounced socioeconomic bias in connection with those who do compete: the more affluent the family, the more likely the child will participate (read: will be able to afford to play). And one of the major factors behind the decline is the development of selective — and expensive — “travel teams,” which select only the very best athletes and keep them in one sport exclusively, often to satisfy a parent’s fantasy that the child can use his or her athletic prowess to obtain an athletic scholarship.

To those parents I would say two things.  One, being on an athletic scholarship is a lot like indentured servitude; don’t put your child through that.  Let her be an ordinary college student.  Club sports are a blast and don’t interfere with having a life during the four years the kid will spend on campus.  Two, how about letting your kid play a game simply for the sake of playing a game?


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