Superstars and Spectators

It’s been a few months since this article was fresh on the scene, but I continue to see it circulating on social media. Entitled, “The Race to Nowhere In Youth Sports”, I think it captures many of the big issues with youth sports VERY well.

As a parent of three children, all with varying levels of athletic ability, I’ve found myself immensely frustrated with the system as well. But for different reasons. The last thing I’m concerned with is athletic specialization. I just want every kid to have a chance.

A bit of background. With my firstborn, we started t-ball at age 6. We thought that would be a good age to start… it was when I was young, at least.

Not so much. We soon discovered that the T-ball programs in our area began at age 3. As my child was just being introduced to organized sports, we found we were already 3 years behind in helping to develop baseball skills.

With my girls, we thought we wised up. Gymnastics began in pre-school. With an emphasis on fun, developing coordination, and learning skills, we thought we had started well.

Turns out, gymnasts begin to become more specialized by kindergarten. Placed into competitive / non-competitive tracks, we found ourselves with a tough decision: subject our girls to hour upon hour of practice each week, taking away from any opportunity to pursue other sports (not to mention family time, church activities, schoolwork, and the like), or determine their sports future before they’ve even began to discover for themselves what they love.

Enter soccer. Given the frustrations of other sports, I pledged to minimize the issues by coaching with a close friend with children close to the same age as my own. The formative years were great. Herd-ball soccer (AKA 5-6 year olds) was a blast. But step up a level?

Suddenly competition became important to certain parents. Because winning was REALLY important to their 7 and 8 year olds. (Or not. Most games, the snack was the clear highlight.)

Not so much to me, as a coach, or to the assistants I selected. We coached all kids at all positions, all with equal playing time, with fun as our main emphasis. We didn’t even keep track of the score (though our parents certainly did). Without specializing players in positions, and mandating equal time, we were one of the odd teams out in our league. Losses mounted. Problem parents yanked their “star” kids after the fall season. We barely could field a team in the spring. We scored one goal all year. And despite all this, every one of the girls that stuck with us continued to play the following year.

Just on different teams, with different coaches. Because I was done, frustrated with a system I could do nothing about. Beat up by parents. On their new teams, many of the kids sat on the bench.

You see where I’m going with this.

The focus on competition at early ages is an absolute travesty. The system it creates flat out sucks. Early developers, whose athletic skills come almost naturally, get playing time and coaching attention. Late bloomers are left behind. As playing time mounts for the “stars”, their skills increase by leaps and bounds. Bench-warmers quickly fall further behind.

In essence, kids are either tracked for stardom or relegated to the sports dump heap based on their abilities before they even reach double digits.

Is this what we want nowadays? A vast divide of superstars and spectators?

Are these the values we want our kids to embrace?

Are these the measures by which we want our kids to judge their self worth?

I’d like to think not.

But the systems I’ve seen speak otherwise.