Youth sports: The Good, Bad & Ugly

When I was in my youth, many years ago, participating in sports was simple. In the fall, you played football. In winter, basketball. In spring/summer, baseball. And you either played for your school or an organized program like Little League, or just grabbing a handful of friends for a quick pick-up game.

A few days ago, I returned from a trip to the Seattle area and had the wonderful opportunity (cold and rain notwithstanding) to watch the grandkids in action in soccer, Little League Baseball and lacrosse. Around that time, there was a story in The New York Times with the lead (or lede, if you prefer) stating “For years, unruly parents have turned youth sporting events into a toxic environment. The cancellation of games and entire seasons over the last two years hastened an exodus of referees.”

For years, I have been concerned about two trends in youth sports. One is the intense pressure many kids face from coaches to specialize in one specific sport. While there is no denying that this concentration can expedite the kid’s development, it often leads to that child getting burned out and prematurely losing interest in the sport.

My oldest grandson, who is 12, has already been approached by a former pro soccer player about enlisting in his enhanced tutelage program. As you might imagine, it is not inexpensive. So far, our grandson’s parents have resisted the pitch, but it does speak to the pressure on kids today to focus all their time and energy on a single sport.

 I may be old-fashioned, but I truly believe that kids today would be better served participating in a variety of sports to really grasp which ones they like most. 

These kinds of elite programs are a burden on the child and the family alike because, not only are they ridiculously expensive, but they also typically involve serious time and travel commitments. More than even the financial burdens, I believe they strain time, which might be better spent with family, friends and keeping up with schoolwork and other non-sport activities. 

The second disturbing trend is the one I alluded to in this New York Times article. Throughout one of the soccer games my grandson played in, the opposing coach verbally abused the lead referee. The abuse was loud, persistent and unwarranted under any circumstances but was especially egregious because that referee was only a teenager himself – barely older than the players.

I coached youth sports at the junior high level for many years and I had very few instances of parental over-involvement. And to be fair, I didn’t see too much negativity from the parents at the games I attended in Seattle. But there is little doubt that this is a growing problem – especially in organized sports outside of the school setting.

Despite these trends, there is still a silver lining – a little good with the bad and the ugly. A common expression from my youth, and Proverbs, was “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” Without active participation in sports, many kids risk falling into the habit of spending too much time playing video games indoors and not enough engaged in healthy physical activities. 

For sure, involvement in youth sports is a two-sided coin. I only hope the negative trends on the flip side don’t win out over the good.