What’s Right about Youth Sports in America

Though youth sports has its challenges, there is also a lot of good for kids.

Posted Jan 02, 2019

 ranplett/iStock
Source: ranplett/iStock

I’ve been involved in youth sports for—Yikes!—more than 50 years. As a child, I played Little League baseball and soccer, but my main sport was alpine ski racing (I know, not your typical suburban sport). Since then, I’ve been actively involved in youth sports as a mental coach. In these capacities, it seems as if I’ve seen it all, from the Olympic medal feasts to the medal famines, programmatic successes to abysmal failures, phenoms to late bloomers, with healthy doses of politics, ego turf, and stagnation, as well as inspiration, cooperation, and collaboration.

Over the last decade, there has been rising concern about the changes that are occurring in youth sports (I wrote about this issue in greater depth in December). Youth sports used to be about kids: fun, physical health, teamwork, and developing positive life skills. Now, it seems like it’s all about winning, fame, wealth, and glory. I call it the “professionalization of youth sports” and “the youth-sport-industrial complex,” in which the focus is on adults, including parents, who have delusions of grandeur for their children, overzealous coaches, and a private training industry selling college athletic scholarships and professional or Olympic fame to parents who have been seduced by the idea of winning at all costs, early specialization messages they are bombarded with in youth sports.

But, with 2019 having just arrived, I’m not writing this article to pile on the criticism of youth sports. To the contrary, though I also have concerns about the present state of youth sports in our country, I do believe in approaching challenges in a positive light. I also like to provide balance to the divergent perspectives that are expressed. All with the goals of bringing people together, finding a shared vision, and catalyzing a coordinated effort to solve the decidedly first-world problems that everyone in youth sports faces.

So, today I would like to talk about what’s right about youth sports in America in the hope that the positive tone of my article ensures that all those who are involved in youth sports can join hands, sing Kumbaya, and work as one to return youth sports to the children and to the many benefits it provides to young people. Okay, maybe there won’t be any Kumbaya, but you know what I mean.

What’s Right

As I work with athletes and families, speak at youth sports organizations, and attend competitions, I see tremendous passion for children and sports. Children’s participation in sports is high and the opportunities for kids to play many different sports can be found all over the country.

I see kids who are out there for “grins and giggles” and others shooting for the impossible dream. I see those same kids practicing in cold, heat, rain, and snow, doing endless drills, failing and doing it again and again until they get it right. All for what? Not results, but for the joy of playing, the satisfaction of mastering new skills, and the plain fun of hanging with their buddies.

I see young athletes with endless drive and determination striving to be their best despite the financial and physical challenges they face. Every young athlete with big dreams who is climbing the competitive ladder deserves our admiration and support.

I see parents who are willing to shoulder the expense of their children’s sports and drive their kids to practices at 5 a.m. and 7 p.m., and to competitions hours away. Parents who see the value in sports for their children, not in the results, but in the life lessons their kids learn on the field, court, course, rink, hill, trail, etc. Parents who volunteer their time to manage teams, organize competitions, raise money, and build community.

I see so many coaches, from those still coaching from back in my day to young coaches who want to make coaching their life’s work, to coaches who have “real” jobs, but love sports enough to commit inordinate amounts of time to helping children gain its many benefits. Being a coach can be really hard work, between the long hours and days, bad weather, organizing practices and competitions, the list goes on (and most aren’t paid very well either). Their commitment, love of youth sports, and their dedication to kids is so worthy of respect and admiration.

And, I see a lot of very smart people all over the country who are dedicated to making youth sports better. Some are seasoned professionals who bring decades of experience and “institutional wisdom” to the table. Others are newer to the game, but bring knowledge and experiences from other domains that can help challenge the status quo and bring fresh ideas to the fore. What I know for sure is that when you combine smart and passionate people with a shared vision, an openness to change, a culture of innovation, and a spirit of collaboration, good things will happen. And the real winners are our children.

Finally, thanks to all those who read and comment on my posts. It has been a joy and privilege to be a part of the youth sports community and to have the opportunity to share my own personal passion and dedication to making youth sports better.

I hope everyone has had a great holiday and is now gearing up for a wonderful 2019!

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