No surprise: Adults still the worst thing to happen to youth sports

It’s entirely possible that I misheard a WCCO-TV promo last night for a piece running tonight on youth sports, but it sounded as though a local father was threatened with a gun because of an argument over a play at a youth sporting event.

The saddest part? That’s not at all surprising to anyone who’s been involved with adults at youth sports leagues.

In Mississippi, for example, a referee is being held on charges of killing a coach this week. The coach had been complaining about some of the calls against his team. His team? They were seventh-graders.

What’s wrong with us? Just about everything when it comes to adults and youth sports, writes Jay Atkinson in the Boston Globe Magazine:

Three out of four American families with school-aged children have at least one playing an organized sport — a total of about 45 million kids.

By age 15, as many as 80 percent of these youngsters have quit, according to the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine. One reason is the gap between the child’s desire to have fun and the misguided notion among some adults that their kids’ games are a miniature version of grown-up competitions, where the goal is to win.

In 20 years of coaching youth and high school sports, I can say unequivocally that adult expectations are the number one problem. As we approach summer, when the living is supposed to be easy, too many families are searching the Internet for a private batting instructor, a summer hockey program, an expensive strength camp, and that elusive AAU coach who can get their 11-year-old to improve her jump shot.

This is a misguided attempt to accelerate a process that may not even be occurring, since most young athletes will never reach the elite level.

Adults who are chasing future athletic scholarships aren’t particularly good at math, he notes. One percent of high school athletes will get a Division I scholarship, but on average the amount is far below the money families spend on developing their little star.

The writer Edna St. Vincent Millay once noted that life is not one damn thing after another, it’s one damn thing over and over. That applies to specialization in youth sports, too.

Hockey season, which once ran from Halloween to St. Patrick’s Day, now starts in late August and wheezes to a halt in April. Then there’s 10 weeks of “spring hockey,” summer hockey camps, and so on. Basketball, soccer, baseball, and gymnastics — same deal.

I’ve seen many promising teen athletes “retire” at a time when their interest in sports should be peaking.

Some kids are sick of playing, and some are sick of playing in pain. A 2013 study of 1,200 young athletes showed those who concentrated on a single sport were 70 percent to 93 percent more likely to be injured than those who played multiple sports.

The beauty and the joy of playing sports, he says, “is sovereign territory and belongs to the kids themselves.”

  • “A 2013 study of 1,200 young athletes showed those who concentrated on a single sport were 70 percent to 93 percent more likely to be injured than those who played multiple sports.”

    Dr. James Andrews said last month that he believes Tommy John surgeries are becoming more common because of year-round baseball.

  • BReynolds33

    I actually had a parent this year tell me that if I was “too busy to coach, I should find someone who will,” because I canceled practice due to our field being flooded after monsoon season.

    It’s slow pitch softball. There aren’t even scholarships for it. Sigh.

  • John

    We have our 9 year old son on a swim team. We wanted him to get involved in something that gets him out and moving, and he loves swimming, so there you go.

    I live in the west metro, and there are probably 8-10 different competitive teams/programs to pick from. We went with the YMCA because their focus is NOT on winning at all costs (in fact, losing is something we want him to become comfortable with, because it happens at much higher stakes when you’re older). The focus is on developing as a person. Winning gracefully, losing gracefully, competing, having a good time – these are all things that we want him to experience.

    I wish there were more sports and programs available that had that kind of focus.

  • Lonny Goldsmith

    I coached a U-14 soccer tournament team in Michigan when I was a 23 year old volunteer with no kids on the team. We were terrible, but the kids had fun. By the last game, I had a kid tell me to please get the parents to shut up because they were tired of having the parents yelling at them. I told them to be supportive, sit there quietly or watch the game from the parking lot. They went with Option B. I think their kids would have preferred that they have chosen option C.

  • John

    Another little anecdote from “the more things change” file. . .

    My little brother Dan was a pretty good baseball player throughout highschool (pushing 15-20 years ago now). He also loved the game enough that he would umpire little league games (I don’t recall if he got paid or not – he probably did, but I’d be surprised if it was more than $20 a night). He must have been somewhere in the 14-16 year old range, hardly older than the kids playing. Some parent in the stands was heckling the kids and the coaches. It was a tough situation, and as the ump, Dan had to deal with it.

    Dan stops the game, walks over to the guy and tells him he has to leave. The heckler looks at my brother (who was probably 6 feet tall and all muscle, even at that age) and says “who’s gonna make me?”

    Dan calmly looks over, points at the one cop who’s there (watching his own son play – he may or may not have been on duty), and says, “we are.”

    The guy left without further comment. I think Dan got a standing ovation.

  • Parents need to remember this is just a GAME! Yes, you can (and should) get excited about your child’s involvement in sports. Be enthusiastic and involved. But at the end of the day it’s about the kids. Let them have fun and play and make mistakes.