Do the Right Thing

Spirit, science, and health

The Tyranny of Youth Sports

Have we gone bonkers with youth sports in America?

In America we seem to do everything on steroids, don’t we? We like everything big! For example, if a cup of coffee is good, then a 20oz venti size is even better. And when it comes to youth sports, it seems like parents, coaches, and kids have gone bonkers and over the top.

The other day while I was sitting through yet another long high school track meet one mom mentioned to me that she has to fly her child to Las Vegas for a weekend of soccer games. Sounds like this is pretty routine for her family. Another friend flies her son across the country for a cross country meet (also routine). Another dad has a hockey game for his son in Chicago this time. Yet none of these children have even reached puberty yet! It doesn’t get much better for teens. For example, one neighbor's teenage son plays club baseball every weekend of the year (except Thanksgiving weekend). Little time for other interests, family vacations, and so forth. Family dinners are pretty rare. For them, things like family obligations and even school gets in the way of baseball!

And here at Santa Clara University I remember talking with one of the baseball player's dad a few years ago. His son graduated from SCU and went on to play professional baseball at the minor league level. He admited that he attended every home baseball game during his son's four years on campus but never actually set foot on the rest of our lovely college campus until his son's graduation!

With the promise of a potential college athletic scholarship ahead or perhaps playing at the professional level, kids and parents seem to take the bait and make youth sports their very top priority. Should they? 

Certainly much has been written about the pressure and intensity of youth sports (as well as the intense pressure of academics for kids and families too). For example, Tiger Mom, Amy Chu, wouldn’t get all of the interest and attention for her recent books and provocative perspective on child rearing if her style and insights didn’t touch a sensitive nerve in parents.

There have been many recent and excellent efforts to try and civilize the way we go about raising our youth when it comes to sports with organizations such as the Positive Coaching Alliance (http://positivecoach.org/) and the Changing the Game Project that claims to "put the 'play' back into 'play ball'” (changingthegameproject).  Yet our culture reinforces extreme intensity in sports (and academics too). This train appears to have left the station on this issue.

Additionally, kids have too often become mere narcissistic extensions of their parents with our culture supporting extreme engagements and demands for success in sports, academics, and other activities. Your child and family can be valued only as far as their athletic career (and academics) can take them.

My concern here is that kids get overwhelmed, burned out, and just plain fried by the time they are 18 and entering college. And like so much in America, cottage industries emerge making a great deal of profit off of the fears of families that their child will not reach their potential in sports (or academics). And I wonder why some of my college freshmen seem so tied in class so early in their college career.

No easy answers of course but we need to be thoughtful of what we are doing to our kids and families in our efforts to be the best.  After all, sometimes what is needed most in sports is a time out!

So, what do you think?

Check out my web page at www.scu.edu/tplante and follow me on Twitter @ThomasPlante

Copyright 2014 Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP

Thomas Plante, PhD, ABPP, is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ University Professor at Santa Clara University and Adjunct Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University.

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