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
Sports Forum Podcast
Episode #29 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: The Honorable Tom McMillen Visits League of Fans’ Sports Forum – McMillen is a former All-American basketball player, Olympian, Rhodes Scholar and U.S. Congressman, and has a long involvement with the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sport (now called the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition). We discuss the state of college athletics today, given the pressures of NIL, the transfer portal, sports gambling and huge media contracts. McMillen then provides great perspective on the poor state of physical fitness our young people are experiencing today.
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Episode #27 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Kids’ Sports: How We Can Take Back the Game and Restore Quality Family Time In the Process – Linda Flanagan is author of “Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania Are Ruining Kids’ Sports and Why It Matters.” We discuss how commercialized and professionalized youth sports are hurting kids and their families.
Episode #26 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: How Can We Fix Youth Sports? – John O’Sullivan is Founder and CEO of Changing the Game Project and author of “Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports Back to Our Kids.”
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Episode #24 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Mental Health and Athletes: Ending the Stigma – Nathan Braaten and Taylor Ricci are the founders of Dam Worth It, a non-profit created to end the stigma around mental health at colleges and universities through sport, storytelling, and community creation.
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Ken Reed appears on Mornings with Gail from KFKA Radio in Colorado to discuss bad parenting in youth athletics.
“Should College Athletes Be Paid?” Ken Reed on The Morning Show from Wisconsin Public Radio
Ken Reed appears on KGNU Community Radio in Colorado (at 02:30) to discuss equality in sports and Title IX.
Ken Reed appears on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour (at 38:35) to discuss his book The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place, and to talk about some current sports issues.
- Reed Appears on Ralph Nader Radio Hour League of Fans’ sports policy director, Ken Reed, Ralph Nader and the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner discussed a variety of sports issues on Nader’s radio show as well as Reed’s updated book, How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan. Reed's book was released in paperback in February, and has a new introduction and several updated sections.
League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
Vanderbilt Sport & Society - On The Ball with Andrew Maraniss with guest Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director for League of Fans and author of How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
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