Earlier this year ESPN ran a story showing that most kids playing sports do love playing…but is loving the game enough to justify the year-round play (and possible consequences) that comes with high-pressure travel teams?
“This past spring, ESPN The Magazine commissioned a University of Florida research group, led by professor Michael Sagas, to design a groundbreaking study of elite youth athletes, asking them to tell us exactly how they feel about their sports. Judging by the results of the survey, which was administered to 1,250 high-level athletes (i.e., travel, club, select) ages 10 to 18, across nine different sports in 11 states, the kids are all right. They’re more than all right, actually. They are positively giddy. To be exact, 96 percent of them said they really enjoy their sports. Some of them play team games (baseball, basketball, lacrosse, soccer, softball, volleyball), while others go the individual route (archery, swimming, tennis). Some were multisport athletes, others specialists. But the common thread is that, for the most part, they’re all loving life. And why wouldn’t they? After all, they’re experiencing sports almost like the pros do.“
However, many specialists, including psychologists and orthopedists feel that the “professionalization” of youth sports, including the year-round schedule, the private training, and the early specialization, is ruining more young players than it is producing superstars. Early specialization is contributing to overuse injuries in younger athletes, burnout among players, and huge dropout rates of youth athletes by the time they are 13. Even naturally athletic and talented players, who may love to play soccer or baseball or tennis more than anything else in the world (and look like they might be one of the “lucky ones”), can destroy their athletic career before it ever begins if they suffer a game changing injury at a young age. The more you play the more chances you have of getting hurt; it’s just a numbers game.
“Just because the kids are loving it doesn’t mean it’s what’s best for them,” says Kristen Dieffenbach, a sport psychology consultant at West Virginia University. “If you put them in the kitchen and tell them they can have whatever they want, they’d eat nothing but pizza, chicken wings, burgers and hot dogs.”
Of course, most parents don’t let their children run amok in the kitchen. But unfortunately, where there are sports, there are dollars — in the form of college scholarships and pro contracts. And where there are dollars, there are parents willing to look the other way, regardless of whether they’re doing a disservice to their children. “As the adults in charge,” Dieffenbach says, “we have a responsibility to ask ourselves this: In the interest of our kids’ long-term development, are we doing all we can do?”
Youth sports is a billion dollar injury. Even if you take out the “usual” costs like registration fees, equipment, and travel costs, millions upon millions of dollars are being spent on one-on-one coaching sessions, health and fitness specialists (physical therapists, orthopedists, chiropractors, etc.) and programs, high-end training camps, and more. These costs only grow as a child starts to play year-round. According to ESPN, one hockey family has spent $48,850 on their teenage daughter’s hockey career so far. The rising costs of youth sports are turning it into a culture of “pay to play,” where the socioeconomic status of a family has as much, if not more, of an influence on a child’s success than their own natural talent.
Many parents are chasing the elusive athletic scholarship, or the even more elusive Olympic or professional career. But even if your child has the talent and you have the finances to fund their athletic dreams, should you?