When Did Youth Sports Become So Competitive?

My whole family loves sports. I played sports growing up. My spouse played sports growing up. We played in several leagues together before we had kids, and now our kids are playing in sports. I see great value in sports for kids and adults. Not just the physical value of being active, but the psychological and social value of learning to play on a team with others and learning to commit yourself to improving over time.

But there is a darker side to children’s sports. Some of this has come out more over the last year and a half. I get it, people are frustrated, scared, and uneasy about the pandemic and all the upheaval it has brought and these feelings sometimes spill over into emotions that the parents and children struggle to control. However, there needs to be a balance.

Somehow we’ve been sucked into believing that children’s sports lead to college scholarships and future careers in sports. In fact, only 2% of high school athletes gain college scholarships. Of those college athletes, only 2% go on to play professional sports, and most never reach elite levels. There has been growing concern over the professionalization of kids sports, especially with the time and monetary commitment that is involved (and the inherent inequality this promotes), but this last year I’ve witnessed this more and more as the stress of the pandemic seemed to push people further down this road.

I’ve watched a parent justify his 8 year old repeatedly punching another 8 year old on the field.

I’ve watched a coach yell and demean a child for making a mistake on the baseball field.

I’ve seen parents and coaches so concerned about winning that they put up with behavior from coaches and others that, in other contexts, they would never put up with, but in sports you have to be “tough.”

As my children get older, I see more and more of a push to put them in all the activities, but to what end? This year, after a year of not engaging in as many activities, I allowed my son to sign up for more sports than we normally allow in one season. He loves to play, but he’s tired. I’m tired. We all need a break. The pandemic has offered us a chance to see what it is like to take a break, and, perhaps, we need to learn from that.

This push to do sports year-round isn’t new. I grew up as a swimmer and our seasons went from October to March and May to August. I started on a team that was highly focused on winning at all costs, and I’m thankful to my parents for pulling me from that team and putting me on a team that valued fun and friendship more. I watched my friends from my old team tire of the sport before they finished high school, while my friends on my new team and I went on to compete in college and beyond. Pushing elementary school kids hard may get them places temporarily, but it isn’t necessarily great in the long run. I’ve found that I need to remind myself of this sometimes.

One of our best recent experiences was participating in a triathlon for the first time. My kids (8 years old and 6 years old) participated in Tri4Schools in Middleton this summer and it reminded me of how wonderful children’s sports can be. My kids trained for it by running with me occasionally this summer, and they pushed themselves hard to do their best in the competition. But the best part was how much the organization supported and encouraged every kid who competed. It was so fun and uplifting and my kids were so proud of themselves for doing it.

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Kids sports have so many benefits. I hope my kids will look back on their experiences and feel proud of how they’ve improved over time and what they learned. I fear that as they grow, this will become more difficult, but I’m encouraged by organizations like Tri4Schools that really work to make sports a fun and enjoyable experience for all.

Jill is a born and raised Wisconsinite. She grew up just outside of Madison before heading to northern Michigan for college. Afterwards, she returned to Madison where she married her high school sweetheart, Micah, and earned her PhD in Educational Psychology. Micah and Jill live just outside of Madison with their two children, Levi (5 years old), and Alice (3 years old), and they all love sports and being outside. When Jill isn't enjoying the local Madison parks and activities with her family, she loves to play board games, and relax at home with family and friends. Jill is a busy mom, an active member in her church, and enjoys her job as an Associate Professor of Psychology for a small liberal arts college.

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