As the mother of two energetic young boys, I’m constantly looking for activities to keep them busy—also known as strategies to maintain my sanity.
When I sign them up to play a team sport, my goals are deceivingly simple:
- Have fun;
- Make friends;
- Learn about the sport; and
- Try hard.
But lately, I’ve had this nagging feeling that the fun is being sucked out of these youth sports, and I think parents, myself included, are often to blame.
That’s what Jay Atkinson wrote in a piece that appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine this month. In a time when family engagement is being touted as a panacea to fix our struggling schools, Atkinson, who runs the Methuen Fun Hockey League “Skate & Read” program in Methuen, Mass., says too much parent involvement and too much money are ruining youth sports.
Atkinson warns his fellow coaches, community leaders, educators, and parents that the growing popularity of single-sport specialization, privatization of youth leagues, and the ranking and cutting of young children are harmful trends.
According to Atkinson, three out of four American families with school-aged children have at least one playing an organized sport, or roughly 45 million youths. However, he said the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine found that by age 15, as many as 80 percent have quit.
The culprit, according to Atkinson, is the expectations of adults who view their kids’ games as “miniature versions of grown-up competitions.” He adds that seeking private coaches to improve a child’s athletic abilities is a “misguided attempt to accelerate a process that may not even be occurring, since most young athletes will never reach the elite level.”
So what’s a parent to do? Atkinson paints an idyllic picture of his days as a youth, when his friends organized their own sports leagues and games.
Sadly, I believe those cinematic “Sandlot” days are long gone in most American neighborhoods. If your child doesn’t participate in a sports league in my community, he or she is not learning how to play lacrosse, football, or basketball. Neighborhoods are often silent after school and during the summer because kids are attending practice, playing in a game or enrolled in a camp.
Perhaps Atkinson’s best advice is encouraging adults to “set their egos aside and remember to let the kids have fun.” But his assertion that the only way to achieve that goal is returning youth sports to the neighborhood is unlikely to occur.
A version of this news article first appeared in the K-12 Parents and the Public blog.