By Todd Lancaster
As a sports writer, I have been around sports for a very long time.
However, long before I was a writer, I was a fan and before that (in the very loosest sense of the word) an athlete. Later, I was a parent of student-athletes and now I’m also the parent of ex-high school athletes, so I feel like I have a little perspective on the subject.
I guess somewhere along that timeline, I’ve learned a couple of things.
One of the things I’ve noticed is the more intense youth sports has become, the fewer high school students end up participating. I have some ideas about the correlation between the two, and I think there are factors that go deeper then video games and the internet.
In fact, this isn’t about high school at all. By that time, kids should be well aware what they are getting into and the commitment it takes. Truthfully, it’s not necessarily about school teams at the lower level either, or Little League. It is about those organizations that prey on young athletes, promising them things that they can’t deliver on.
The world of youth sports is a multi-billion dollar business, and if you have multiple kids playing multiple sports, it may feel like you are bankrolling most of that industry yourself. However, advocates for the intense rituals of AAU, travel and club sports are not just about wealth protection, it is also about parents buying into the narrative that with enough time and money, every child can be a superstar.
It is not the money that bothers me the most, it is how we have let the idea of youth sports wag the dog. If you have an average 12-year-old athlete playing three sports, then what you don’t have are lazy weekends, family vacations, dinners or the inability to tell a coach, “Sorry, Junior is going to Granny’s birthday, and I don’t care if it may cost him playing time.”
A lot of this comes from a belief that the end of the rainbow is playing college athletics and that will help curtail what can be up to a $250,000 college career. Higher education is very expensive and the thought that if someone will help pay for it, then it is worth giving up your family life for a decade, so your son or daughter will have a chance to be a back-up shortstop at an NAIA school. Now there are kids who want one more opportunity to keep playing and there are kids who are exceptional athletes and have a chance to not only play at a higher level, but maybe even play at the highest level; those people are not the ones I’m talking about.
For years, my family was limited to one week in the summer when there were no “scheduled” activities; this was over the Fourth of July and was often the most expensive week of the year to vacation. As a family, we were juggling basketball, football, golf tournaments, girls’ basketball and volleyball camps. In the fall, there were multiple football practices, volleyball and games three nights a week along with weekend tourneys. I don’t think it is a bad idea for kids to be involved and remain busy, but I’m beginning to wonder who decides when too much is too much.
Getting off the sports treadmill
It is funny: I can tell you the location of every Subway, Dairy Queen, McDonald’s, Dollar General and CVS in Southern Indiana and that is part of being a sports parent, but I wonder what message we are sending kids. In a world where “lack of self-esteem” is not normally a problem for the youth of today, somehow shutting down every aspect of life for a weekend tourney may send the message that children’s activities should dictate family activities and that is just wrong — children are a part of families, not the sole focus of them.
I remember riding my bike to baseball practices, riding home and never once expecting my parents to pick me up. Yeah, that sounds like an old guy walking uphill both ways, and the truth is, I picked my kids up after every practice.
However, what they have missed is an opportunity to quietly decompress, a chance to think and a chance to put things in perspective. Back then, it was a life without Gameboys, iPhones or other devices, but it did help us focus on the here and now, and that is what made youth sports fun — afternoons with your friends.
Most of our equipment was 10-15 years old and an old sweatshirt from your dad would fit over shoulder pads. I think we dreamed about new equipment, tournaments with huge trophies and matching uniforms, but ended up with Coke if you lost and a hot dog if you won. In football, it was orange slices at halftime, which might have been the best-tasting thing on the planet to an 11-year old on a hot September Saturday.
Our Little League coach kept the team’s four wooden bats in an old sea bag he used in Korea. It also held some old catcher’s gear that might have actually gone to the Korean War as well. I sometimes think it was the anticipation of possibility of playing senior League, JV and high school, where just maybe you would get to wear white cleats.
I don’t know if players who have been “AAU-ized” their whole playing life are better today than back in the day; they probably are. I do know that there were a lot of kids who spent hours shooting free throws just because they loved it, and they turned out all right.
For the record, I struck out with the bases loaded in the final game of my PAL Bronco season. I was so ashamed I refused to go to Dairy Queen with my team. Life lessons came cheaper then, and we didn’t get a trophy after that loss. There were no summer tournaments that year, no travel teams or fall ball, but I do remember catching a sand shark in Maine, going to the beach in New Hampshire, listening to ballgames on the radio or just the feeling of waking up, getting on my bike and not knowing where the day would take me.
Recently, an elementary or junior high coach sent in results and listed that a player’s point totals for that game were a “career high.”
I didn’t realize sixth or seventh grade was part of a career.