Photo by: Chris Knight
When I was young, youth sports were an entirely different animal from what they are now. It seems like kids don’t get to enjoy the well-rounded, sports-filled childhood I knew as a youngster. The days of playing a-little-of-this and a-little-of-that or just “playing” are long gone. Their schedules are jammed with planned activities and, by the age of nine, most are funneled into some sort of travel team or “competitive” sport where the level of commitment is high for both the kids and parents, along with the costs. The term “competitive” is a farce because everyone makes the team. But what I don’t understand is, what is the rush?
Why is everyone so anxious to get their young kids locked into a sport so quickly? My peers are obsessed with rigorous activity schedules and expensive sports programs for their kids. I’m just not seeing the benefits. Whatever happened to a little free time and having our kids become well-rounded athletes by trying different sports?
Are we developing champions in a world where everyone plays? Are all of those dollars spent on “competitive” sports guaranteeing college scholarships? Are these kids even going to get a four-year high school sports experience? No. Not even a chance for most. Many of these kids won’t even make it on the school team beyond their freshman year. Yet, by that time, their parents will have already likely dropped thousands of dollars to an organization despite the lack of player and team development. The competitive part of the sports experience was taken out of the equation the moment everyone started making the team. That, by definition, renders these groups as non-competitive athletics. In fact, they are better defined as recreational sports pretending to be competitive sports, especially with their cost. That bothers me. So, why not prolong the recreational sporting experience a bit longer, perhaps let our little ones try more and different sports and, I know this sounds crazy, just let them play as kids should.
Currently, the competitive youth soccer world is a pay-to-play environment; if you pay, your kid can play and the cost is high. Back in the day, when soccer wasn’t a money-making business model, a tryout meant you had to physically show up and show your skills. Then, the coaches assessed and, in a week or so, you got a call to either invite you to the team or to tell you to keep practicing and come out next year. These days, in the so-called “competitive” youth soccer world, you don’t even have to show up to make the team. Send your money in and they will let you know what A, B, C, D, E or F team you are on. From there, teams are formed with every paying party and kids are constantly being moved up, down and all around. There is no consistency. No continuity. No team unity. How can there be?
And what about the commitment? Once you sign on the dotted line, you are “club team” property. They suck up your time with practices and travel and, if you aren’t able to go to Sunday’s game, no biggie, little Suzy (who is a year younger and looks like a newborn deer stumbling around on the field) will play up. What does that teach a child and an athlete about individual responsibility and the commitment they have to their team? What team? Where is the glory in that? I am not sure there is any.
Back when sports were actually competitive when you truly earned a spot and became part of a team, it was the only thing in the world that mattered. The practice was required and you weren’t there because you had to be, you were there because you wanted to be better. Not showing up didn’t even occur to you because, when you made it to that level, you lived it. You breathed it. It was your passion. You had the heart. You had grit. You would do anything to win. And, when you did, it was the greatest feeling in the world. When you didn’t, you went over it in your head a thousand times. You asked yourself, “How can I be better?” My generation of athletes held each other accountable. We relied on each other. We trusted one another. We were a single unit made up of 11 players that thought like 1.
Competitive sports have a way of imitating life. In mine, it was soccer that really shaped me. I had to work for every achievement–the same goes for life as an adult. When I fucked up on the field, it hurt. But I learned from it and learned to never give up. When shit gets real as a grownup, I call upon the life skills I honed on the field to get me through my stuff. That is the point of youth sports and right now it is failing our kids. Times have changed and, while everyone complains about the entitled generation of kids these days, it seems to me that we are at fault. We are programming young people to get whatever they want, whenever they want. When the harsh realities of life come and slap them in the face, they won’t be ready. They won’t be able to handle them. We need to be harder on our kids and let them experience both failure and great achievement so that they grow into young people who will contribute to society. I am just not sure this can be accomplished in a world where everyone makes the team…