Year-Round Youth Sports: Some Good, Mostly Bad

Today’s Wall Street Journal has a column by Sue Shellenbarger about year-round youth sports leagues, and how they can be a bad thing for the wrong kid: “All Soccer, All the Time? How Not to Kill Kids’ Love of Sports”.

Competitive, year-round youth sports is a favorite target of my criticism. While there are definitely kids who thrive on that competition (and for other kids, at certain age ranges), that number is smaller than most parents believe, in my opinion. And for those kids who don’t thrive, what are we doing to them?

The keyword here is “thrive”. Unless a kid thrives in an environment, you have to ask yourself some hard questions about the net effect it is having on them. And maybe, overall, even if they don’t thrive, a competitive situation is still the right thing for a kid. But at what cost?

Is it good for the whole family to be obsessive about the doings of a nine year old? Twelve? Fourteen? I’d say no. Kids don’t want, or need, too much pressure or attention, generally speaking.Β  Even if they pretend otherwise.

And, there is this. Probably 85-95% of all kids who play in year round competitive leagues at some time in their lives end up quitting, and probably as teenagers. Whether because they get injured, or just aren’t good enough, or just plain get sick of living for a sport at a tender age, most of these kids just have to drop out at some point; the number of available slots on college teams determines the odds here. Little Johnny is more likely to become an accountant or a salesman or a mechanic than a professional athlete of any stripe. Little Suzy, even moreso.

So whose interests are really being served?

Here, for me, is the bottom line: where we once lived in a world where kids played on their own, and played in organized leagues too, and for the most part saw the whole experience as valuable and instructive, and fun, we now live in a world where few kids play on their own, and those that do play in organized leagues have to choose between two leagues, one competitive, one not at all. The problem today? Adults. Way too many of them, getting in the way. Kids today always, always, ALWAYS have adults hovering around, messing up their valuable fun and growing up time.

We all know how adults can mess up competitive leagues, with their boorish, win-at-all-costs behavior. John Wooden, they are not.

And even in the non-competitive leagues, we give kids trophies just for showing up, which all at once devalues real achievement, and inflates the kid’s sense of entitlement. A two-fer.

Somehow, we’re still holding on to this quaint idea that athletics is a universal good for our children, across the board, details be damned, even for kids as young as 7 and 8. And in the main, I agree, and encourage my kids to go out and play, and to join leagues for sports they like, and will work at, to get better. You won’t find a bigger fan of the value of learning how to work for something, the sense of accomplishment, the instilling of a work ethic that can be applied later in other areas.

But I draw the line at putting kids who are under, say, 13-14 into any type of intense, competitive, year round situation, unless their talent and psyche clearly warrant it, and both parents agree that giving your leisure time and lots of your money over to this pursuit is worth it. Even if it goes nowhere. Which it probably will.

Our kids are only young for a while, and then they go away. We aren’t helping them if we make them say goodbye to the special things that childhood is good for, too soon.

Here is the full study from the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, at Michigan State University: Research in Youth Sports: Critical Issues Status


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