First of all, I want to emphasize that I love sports. Always have and always will. I am 57 years old and have played sports all of my life and will hopefully be able to participate for the rest of my life. I love the thrill of competing and the excitement of accomplishing a goal on the athletic field. I grew up in a time when organized sports were at day or summer camps and team sports were mostly in schools. There were some summer teams that played baseball and basketball, but most were set up in the school systems. Today, it is totally different. Recreational sports and club sports exist in almost every sport and are year round. They begin at very young ages and continue all the way through high school.
It has gotten to the point now, where if you don’t start specializing in a sport by age 9 or 10, the message to most kids is that you will never be on the best teams or be able to play at the high school level. As time goes on, the more I speak with parents, coaches and athletes, the more I feel we are doing a tremendous disservice to our kids.
Last month, Junior Seau committed suicide. Seau, 43, was a great NFL linebacker for 20 years, having spent most of his time playing for his hometown, San Diego Chargers. Divorced and the father of three children, Seau had been retired for a couple of years. Did he commit suicide because of the effects of concussions? Or was it because football had been his life and he didn’t know what else to do with himself after he retired?
This past week, two fathers both had conversations with me that made me think about how much pressure and emphasis we put on sports for kids. One father, a college soccer coach, told me that his 14 year old son, an excellent club soccer player, asked if it would be OK if he took the fall off from his club soccer team to play high school soccer. The coach and his wife felt like it would be a good thing for their son. They spoke with the club coaches and shared their decision with them. The club coaches got hostile and confrontational and told them they were kicking the young man off the team because he wasn’t staying committed. The father told me that after thinking about how they spend between $12,000 and $15,000 a year on his club soccer, between traveling expenses and club fees, it would be fine to take the fall off and play on his high school team. After listening to the responses from the club coaches, he knew they had made the correct decision. As a college coach, he said if it isn’t fun in high school, it would never be fun in college. Another father spoke with me about his 12 year old daughter’s club volleyball experience. This weekend, they were leaving for a 4 day tournament out of town, that would end up costing over $1200 in traveling fees and tournament costs. He asked me if I thought it was worth it. I asked him if he could afford it. He said yes, but he spent $16,000 last year on his daughter’s volleyball expenses. I asked him if his daughter was having fun. He wasn’t sure if she was anymore. I then told him I thought they should have a family discussion about it. He told me she didn’t participate in any other activities because of the demands of the team. I talked with him about getting burned out and not having time to be a kid. He said they were going to have a long talk about this on the drive back home after the tournament. Having balance in your life is essential for everyone. For kids, I think the most important thing is to be a kid. If sports become all too consuming and become the be all end all in your child’s life, you may not be exposing them to all of the keys to becoming a successful person. Having fun, enjoying the experience, making friends and learning about yourself are in my opinion, what youth sports should be about. The winning and losing are part of it, but should be way down the list in terms of importance.