By Ken Reed
The Huffington Post
January 10, 2014

We all need to think more deeply about the insanity of our youth sports culture, with its focus on early specialization in one sport, and, especially its seasons without end. -Michael Sokolove, author of Warrior Girls

Youth sports: a chance to run around, play sports with friends and have fun.

At least that’s how it used to be.

Today, our kids’ games have been hijacked by adults who professionalize them and attempt to meet their own needs through youth sports. Even when parents and coaches have good intentions the damage to our young people is real nonetheless.

Sometimes parents want that magical athletic scholarship more than their child does. They’d like to be able to tell the people in their lives that their kid got a full-ride athletic scholarship to State U. Others are trying to live out their athletic dreams through their children. It’s called achievement by proxy syndrome.

“A lot of parents have a belief that says, ‘How well my kid does on the field reflects on me as a parent,'” says Jim Thompson, founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance. “One of my mentors, John Gardner, once said, ‘The toughest thing kids have to face is the unfulfilled lives of their parents.’ I think there’s a lot of truth in that.”

For other parents, youth sports provide the centerpiece of their entertainment and social life. And then there are a growing number of profit-seeking adults in the youth sports field — club sports administrators, personal trainers and coaches, tournament and camp organizers, etc. — that are focusing on making big bucks off parents’ dreams of athletic glory for their children.

As a whole, our youth sports system is broken. As the country’s performance culture increasingly focuses on the development of elite athletes at the youth sports level, our kids are burning out emotionally at a greater clip and at an earlier age. Moreover, this “sports for the elite” approach has come at the expense of a “sports for all” philosophy that would significantly help address our country’s childhood obesity epidemic.

Intramural sports — in which all students could participate regardless of their athletic ability — have gone the way of the dinosaurs. And physical education classes are on the endangered species list.

Research shows that nearly 80 percent of all children who play adult-organized youth sports drop out by the time they’re 13. The reason most often cited is that it’s no longer fun. The primary reason it’s no longer fun? Overzealous adults, in the form of parents and/or coaches.

And our kids’ bodies are breaking down with overuse injuries at an alarming rate.

“With specialization, the danger is that kids use the same muscle groups, day in and day out, and this wears out the muscles,” says Michael Sokolove, author of Warrior Girls.

Fred Bowen is the author of 18 books for kids that combine sports fiction and sports history. He also writes a weekly sports column for kids in the Washington Post. He agrees with Sokolove regarding the dangerous adult-driven trend toward more and more specialization in youth sports.

“I think you can see overbearing adults in all the youth sports issues today. For example, let’s take specialization, playing only one sport at a young age. I had the privilege of interviewing Cal Ripken one time and I asked him when was the first time he played baseball year-round. He told me, ‘When I signed a professional contract at 18.’

“I point out to parents that Ripken was an all-state soccer player in high school. Ripken was a big man for a shortstop but he could really move his feet. Soccer helped him with his footwork. San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, was not only a standout football player in high school; he was also an excellent basketball player. But people who saw him a lot in high school said his best sport was probably baseball.

“The American Academy of Pediatrics specifically says don’t specialize in youth sports. So, if kids specialize by focusing on playing a single sport year-round, they are doing so against doctors’ orders. And adults who allow specialization, or encourage it, are going against doctors’ orders as well.”

Why is this happening? What’s going on?

Ego is a factor. Too many parents are living the “athletic scholarship/pro athlete dream” for themselves, pushing their kids too hard, and in the process, taking the passion and joy out of sports.

And good old human greed plays a role as well. There are a growing number of profit-driven youth sports vultures that are increasingly leveraging the dreams of youngsters and their parents for their own financial benefit. It doesn’t matter how athletically-challenged some of these kids are, the sales pitch from some youth sports entrepreneurs remains the same, whether it’s delivered implicitly or explicitly: “If you come work with me, join our club for $XXX a week/month/year, I can get you that scholarship.”

“Jay Coakley (a leading sports sociologist) believes youth sport is child labor revisited,” says Thompson. “You have entrepreneurs making money in youth sports and the staff, in a sense, is made up of young kids. That’s a problem.”

Yes, one of many problems in youth sports world.

Ken Reed is Sports Policy Director for League of Fans

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