Monday, January 11, 2010

Why I Hate that He Hates Youth Sports...But I Can't Blame Him

A response to the Why I Hate Youth Sports article (listed below)

I get it. I get all of it. Hating the intensity, the cheating, the pressure and the grueling physical demands. I understand the disgust with overzealous parents and disappointment with a system of beliefs that leaves once-sports-hungry kids burnt out and hating the sports that define them.

I am not sure that I have an adequate response to the argument that sports are worth hating sometimes. It is the one area of life where we literally have permission to get pissed off. Fans hate to watch their teams lose, and players hate to lose even more. Athletes hate being told they are not good enough and parents hate to hear that the kid they have invested so much money and time developing is A) never going to achieve a high level or B) doesn't really want to keep going.

Sports are big business, and until, as a society, we are willing to admit that it has infiltrated the youth sports scene to such a degree that the sport is gone, more and more kids are going to abandon the marketplace well before their bodies should be done competing.

Times have changed since I competed, but I do feel that I was on the leading edge of the sports mania. I played soccer and basketball in college, even achieving the coveted "athletic scholarship" for the last two years I played. My sister and my husband achieved even greater successes, garnering full Division I scholarships for their entire four years. We are all in our 30's and none of us play anymore. Not even for fun. I blame my knees, my husband blames the bitter taste that was left in his mouth by the end of college hockey, and my sister admits that she is just plain burnt out of soccer.

I can tell that it's getting worse. After college, I coached an extremely competitive, premier-level soccer team. We traveled all over the country showcasing the players to college recruiters. In my playing days, our youth teams had traveled, and college coaches had been in attendance, but the feverish pace with which the club was working to stay in the market, was much more intense when I was part of it as a coach. As a result, the parents were more and more overbearing and the players were so intent on scholarship opportunities that they never really played well together as a team. The mounting pressure of team and individual success, coupled with the irrational opinions of parents who hoped that I would tell them what they wanted to hear and/or follow their instructions because they were paying my salary, eventually forced me out of coaching youth sports entirely.

I now coach a Division III women's soccer team, and I see more and more that the talented high school-aged athletes...when given a chance to make the choice their longer want to play. These able-bodied, well-skilled and talented players just don't want to play any more...not even for fun. My guess is that it stopped being fun for them a long time ago and they just finally made the decision not to continue playing.

So I get it, and I am deeply saddened by the voice of the young man who wants to give up on sports altogether. He is speaking for too many athletes. He hit it on the head when he said that he knows it is ridiculous that he should even care that he is never going to go pro. He must have believed that for a long time, because that was what got him out of bed to go to 5 am practices and to continue to subject himself to something that was not positive. Youth sports have failed him. No matter what the objective was supposed to be: his soccer teams, his hockey teams, his coaches, his parents, his teammates and everyone who never gently reminded him that sports are for fitness and sports are for fun, and sports are for life lessons that can hardly be taught any other way...they failed him.

I do wonder what this young man will do in ten to fifteen years when his kids are starting to run and catch and skate and play. When his kids ask to play on a youth soccer team or to race down a hill skiing. People are built to compete, and when kept in perspective, I think that the pendulum can start to swing back toward the ideal that was "youth sports" at its conception.

We have kids who are in the belly of the youth sports beast right now. Our son is 9 and plays hockey, primarily. Our middle daughter is 7 and she too plays hockey, but she also plays soccer, and our littlest is not yet old enough to get on the pitch. We are a sporting family, and that is where we spend our time and our money. Some of the politics and competition has started, in full force, at our son's level, and as appalling as some of it is, we really are just letting him take the lead. We encourage the things that he enjoys about sports, and we gently guide him through some of the pitfalls. It is not easy all the time, and I catch myself, sometimes, being that fanatical parent. I can see how the hype starts, and I am just grateful that both my husband and I know what a flash in the pan a high-level athletic career can be, so we can keep in perspective the importance of all of this.

The chances of our kids playing in college in a sport are approximately less than 10%, and the chances of any of our kids getting paid to play sports is less than 0.5%. Not great odds to get all bent out of shape about.

There are a lot of things that are wrong with youth sports, but as long as the things that are right can be the longer conversations at our dinner table, we will continue to encourage participation for our kids.

I hate some parts of youth sports too, but I love watching my 7-year-old gain confidence both on and off the ice. I love watching my 9-year-old play outside for hours during throw-together pick-up games. So far youth sports have provided the base with which our kids will continue to navigate through both sports and life. I don't know where it is going to go, but as a parent, I can at least make the effort to help them love the process without worrying too much about the end result, and maybe, just maybe...they'll be fans of sport for life, and they will actually still be playing when they are older. Especially, just for fun!

1 comment: