Finally, someone’s speaking out on the increasing madness of youth sports. A former professional athlete turned coach, now father of two, was in my town last week on one stop of a national lecture tour to promote his book “Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports Back to our Kids,” John O’Sullivan warns parents that pushing kids to play a single sport year-round won’t make them better athletes, it will only make them bitter.
O’Sullivan said kids want to play sports for fun and camaraderie. When asked about winning, he said kids value it much less than playing time. Because of criticism, intense practice time and serious commitment to one sport, three out of four kids will stop playing sports entirely by the time they’re 13, O’ Sullivan said. Safe Kids USA confirms this, stating that by age 13, 70 percent of the 30 million American kids who play sports will drop out. The top three reasons: adults, coaches and parents. Kids may not care as much about winning, but parents and coaches do and it’s squashing kids’ joy.
Children would rather play on a losing team than warm the bench for a winning one, O’Sullivan said. Yet the price of admission for kids who just want to play has gotten steep. I’ve seen an increase in travel and/or year-round alternatives since my own kids have gotten older. Recreational teams seem to be in the minority now as more kids are deciding before they’re even double digits what “their sport” is.
Recreational teams, allowing kids to play whatever the sport is of the season, shouldn’t be dismissed. Here kids can play a few hours a week and still have time for other interests.
Yes, many children play multiple sports, but I see more families choosing only “elite” travel clubs with very long seasons, which is multiplying the pressure and intensity on kids even more as they go from this team to that team often in the same day, which means they have to choose. They spend hours a week at practice, but to get “really good” even more money is handed over because parents have been told private lessons on the side are a necessity.
O’Sullivan barely mentioned another reason children shouldn’t specialize in one sport: the rise of injuries from overuse seen in kids has spiked since 2000. Renowned sports physician Dr. James Andrews has operated on professional athletes for 40 years, including Roger Clemens, Charles Barkley, Jack Nicklaus, Kerri Strug, Peyton Manning and most recently Robert Griffin III. He’s been speaking out because he’s now seeing young children come to him with the same kinds of shoulder, knee and elbow injuries he had only previously seen in professional athletes and middle age patients. ccording to the US Center for Disease Control children ages 5 to 14 account for nearly 40 percent of all sports-related injuries treated in hospitals today. Overuse injuries are responsible for nearly half of all sports injuries to middle and high school students. Growing bodies need a break from using the same muscles, ligaments and tendons over and over.
Last month competitive soccer tryouts were held in my community. It was three days of intense wheeling and dealing, with kids as young as 7 vying for a spot on their chosen club. One mom stood off to the side as she watched her son and told me, “If he gets on the team or not, my son loves soccer and sees this as an opportunity to play for three days.” Good for him. That’s what the point should be.
Kids should be having fun when they play sports. They should be learning something about working as a team and building friendships with their peers. When that’s happening, and the sparkle in their eyes is still there, it’s truly a victory.