Raising Rippers

Competitive sports can leave time for almost no fun.     Photo: Katie Arnold

Don't Let Youth Sports Hijack Your Life

Too much competition too soon is bad for your kids and your family

Over the past couple of weeks, my husband and I have been wrestling with the decision over whether or not to play soccer. By we, I mean our two daughters.

Steve and I aren't playing, but the commitment required of us as a family sometimes makes it seem that way: the thrice-weekly trips to the soccer complex on the far side of town, a solid 25 minutes' drive from home; the late practices that don't end until just before bedtime, leaving little time for family dinners, homework, and good old-fashioned goofing around; the Saturday games that conflict with family adventures already on the books—an upcoming float trip on the Green River, the season's last hikes into the high country before the snow flies. 

Our daughters are only four and six. It shouldn't be this complicated.

But increasingly, for children around the country, it is. Kids start playing team sports younger, are encouraged to specialize in a single sport sooner, and are expected to play longer, in some cases year round. Youth sports are on steroids, feeding the widespread competitive pressure for kids to be proficient at everything and exceptional at one thing. Organized sports, once a healthy outlet, are threatening to hijack the lives of children and their families.

It hasn't always been like this. In elementary school in suburban New Jersey in the late 70s and 80s, we didn't play many team sports, unless you count kickball at recess. One winter when I was in fourth or fifth grade, my mother signed my older sisters and me up for a Saturday-morning city basketball league—less to broaden our athletic horizons and more to get us out of her hair for a couple hours.

Back then, schools—not city leagues or traveling teams—were the nexus for youth sports. At Summit Junior High, practices started right after the last bell, on the fields out back or a short walk away. In many cases, we wouldn't see our mothers until after practice, when I'd ride my bike or walk home or she'd be waiting out front to drive me home in time to do my homework and watch my allotted 30 minutes of "Three's Company" reruns before dinner. In high school, I played sports year round, but a different sport each season. Fall was for tennis, winter swimming, and spring, lacrosse. The diversity kept us in check: Just as we got serious about one sport, it was time to switch. We were growing up multi-sport athletes, though no one called it that yet; to our parents, teachers, and friends we were simply "well-rounded." 

Now, though, everything has changed. Motivated in part by ambitious parents and in part by a sports and academic culture that pressures children to excel earlier, kids are flocking to team sports sooner. Between 21.5 and 29 million American kids between the ages of six and 17 participate in organized sports, according to the The Sports and Fitness Industry Association and the Women's Sports Foundation. And parents whose children play on travel leagues spend an average of $2,266 per year on sports-related costs—an obvious financial barrier for minority or low-income children. 

"As private sports organizations have taken over the responsibility of youth sports from schools, the age of competitive teams has been creeping down," explains John O'Sullivan, founder of Changing the Game Project, an initiative to put kids first in kids' sports. "It's certainly a way to make money, but it's also a misunderstanding of what best serves the needs of children. A seven-year old kid does not need to be playing only soccer." Specialization also makes kids more susceptible to burnout. According to the National Alliance for Sports, a staggering 70 percent of kids who play competitive sports burn out and quit by the time they are 13. 

Clearly the balance is off. 

It goes without saying that sports are good for kids. Participation in youth sports improves self-esteem, teaches sportsmanship, encourages safe risk-taking, and builds healthy bodies and brains. The Center for Disease Control recommends that children and adolescents get at least 60 minutes of moderate exercise every day, but few come close, which helps explain the continued rise in childhood obesity—17.3 percent of American children ages 2-19, in 2012—according to an April 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics. And as the organization Designed to Move reports, due to inactivity, today's ten-year-olds are the first generation in a hundred years expected to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. But taken to the extreme, competitive team sports can backfire. Children who focus too early on a single sport often fail to develop basic movement skills, or physical literacy. They're also more prone to injury, stress, and burnout. Studies show that kids who wait until their teenage years to specialize are better all-around athletes and are more likely to stick with sports and continue to be athletic throughout their life. 

Though Pippa's only six, this will be her third season playing soccer. We signed her up on a lark when she was four, not realizing that we were starting down a path from which it would become increasingly difficult to disentangle ourselves. We liked the idea of Pippa tearing around a grassy field, expending some of her wild-child energy, and learning what it means to be part of a team. Soccer seemed like a natural complement to the the litany of other sports she loves—skiing, bike-riding, swimming, climbing. It seemed like an easy choice. 

Maybe too easy. Three years later, we've been sucked into the soccer bandwagon, reluctantly. I can see ahead to what we'll be asked to give up, if not this year or next, then soon: weekend adventures, raft trips, hiking, camping trips, mountain biking, family dinners, unscheduled afternoons when we decide on a whim to catch minnows at the Audubon pond or hike down to the rope swing over the river. We're afraid she'll miss out later if she doesn't play now, but we'll all miss out if she gets too serious too soon. 

So what's the solution for keeping youth sports from taking over your family life and stressing out your kids? Everything in moderation. O'Sullivan recommends focusing one organized sport a season, and mixing in other activities on off days—like tumbling, swimming, climbing and plenty of outdoor free play.

"The general rule is that they should never be involved in more hours of organized sports than their age," he explains. Expose them to as many different options as possible, "but wait long as possible for them to find the sport that's best for them physically and emotionally, and then support them as they chase their dreams."

And do your best to keep competition in perspective. O'Sullivan, a father of two, ages seven and eight, relocated his family to Bend, Oregon, to live a more active, adventurous life. "We moved here because we wanted to hike and camp and bike and fish and but we still feel all this pressure to get involved," he says. "It's important to remember that your goal as a parent is not to raise an Olympic athlete but to raise a well balanced human being that will contribute to society."

Finally, don't forget to stick up for what's important to your family. One of our big values is to do as much as we can locally, within a reasonable radius of home, so we don't have to drive all over town; this cuts back on gas and hassles, encourages us to walk or ride our bikes, and makes us feel more connected to our neighborhood.

Another value is adventure. We want to raise our girls to be competent, enthusiastic outdoor athletes, which means exposing them to a wide range of activities that we can do together as a family: mountain biking, rafting, climbing, skiing, hiking. For us, for now, adventure comes first. This may change as the girls get older, but our family river trips, ski days, travel, and backcountry time will always remain an essential focal point for our family, the glue that keeps us connected, and a much-needed antidote to our overscheduled, wired world.

As for our girls, we've found a different soccer league for Pippa that practices at a neighborhood park a few minutes from home. She'll play the Sunday games when we're in town, but we won't sweat the ones when we're on the river or in the mountains. Maisy is too young to for the league, but she happily puts on her shinguards and dribbles the ball during her sister's practices until, after a few minutes, she gets distracted and races off to the playground. Which is just fine with us. She has plenty of time. We all do.

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