If you run a Google search on youth sports issues, you will find page after page of articles about problems in youth sports today. You will find articles about how youth sports is ruining our children, how specialization in youth sports at too early an age is causing overuse injuries and about how the rising costs of youth sports is a big problem for children from lower income families that can no longer afford to participate. Yes, there are a lot of issues in youth sports today that need to be addressed. What you don't find a lot of when you run that search is what youth sports is really doing to us parents, our lifestyle and our pocketbook. So let's get real. Do you really enjoy spending 16 hours of your weekend at 10-year-old youth soccer tournaments? Is there anything else you would rather be doing, either for yourself or with your family during that time? Does spending $5,000 a year on youth soccer make any sense at all? Are we as parents happy with this lifestyle? I've read a lot about youth sports "hijacking" childhood, but youth sports often highjack the parents’ lives as well.
I get it. I have spent thousands of hours at my daughter’s youth soccer games and I am not close to exaggerating. I love watching my kids play sports, for about 90 minutes on a Saturday morning, and then I'm good. I want to be done with watching soccer for the weekend, but that generally is not the end of it. They win the first game of the tournament. Then they win again. Now they have a late Sunday morning semi-final game.They win again. They are now in the championship game at 6:00 pm on Sunday night and I am getting home at 9:00pm. A whole weekend of my life is spent watching my 12-year-old touch the soccer ball for approximately 300 seconds in 48 hours. While I am happy for my child's success and am excited to see them improve, I always struggle with the massive time commitment of youth sports today.
Maybe I'm just selfish but, here is my ideal Sunday: I wake up, make some coffee and sit on the couch with my wife in my pajamas while watching CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood. Our kids roll out of bed around 10, eat a late breakfast and we head to 11:30 Mass. After Mass, we go to Lucille's Creole Cafe for their famous Bloody Mary's, chicory coffee and scones. Then I go home and take a nap while the kids run over to their friend’s house to jump on a trampoline. At 4:00pm the Denver Broncos game comes on and they win. We have some friends and family over for a big Sunday dinner and following dinner my kids ask me to go shoot some hoops with them in the driveway. We come in and the kids wrap up some weekend homework and get ready for bed while my wife and I each read a great book. That's a pretty nice Sunday to me.
It is fair to say that many American parents would love some version of a Sunday like that, or at least have the opportunity to spend time doing what they really enjoy a little more often. Unfortunately, for many of us with kids playing elite youth sports, our ideal Sunday is not possible. We need to get Johnny to his soccer tournament, Judy to her gymnastics meet and both Johnny and Judy are obviously hoping they both make the finals so that they can play until 9:00 on a Sunday night. Woohoo! How about that late July family vacation? Uh, sorry, fall soccer practice now starts July 5th and if you miss three practices you are cut, at 11 years old.
We all know that it is not just our time on the weekends youth sports are effecting. Many youth sport organizations have mandatory practices 4-5 nights of the week, which significantly reduces the opportunities for free play, homework and family meals. We spend evenings running a taxi service, further increasing the costs of participation, which often are unbelievably high. They are sometimes high enough to pay for an annual family vacation to H-A-W-A-I-I!
At some point we need to realize that youth sports are just not that important in the grand scheme of life. We need to realize that its okay to tell the soccer coach to, "beat it, we are not making that tournament because we've had this family vacation planned for a year." The coach is going to drop her to the "B" team? ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC. That scholarship he promised is probably a pipe dream anyway! Of the 51 million children ages of 6-17 in the United States playing youth sports, less than .3% of them will go on to receive a Division I scholarship.
So how can we take some of our life back? How can we create more family time? How can we better use our money? Here are a few simple things that my wife and I have implemented in our family that have helped:
1. Limit kids to one sport or activity at a time. Ask them at the beginning of the school year what their interests are and what they would like to do for an extra curricular activity in each season of the year. It really makes them think about what they love doing most and brings some sanity to weeknight evenings and weekends because you will not be trying to get to multiple activities.
2. Pay attention to how your child spends their time when not in an organized activity or sport. If they are not playing basketball everyday at recess or you are not constantly telling them to stop juggling the soccer ball around the house, chances are they really don't love the sport or activity and it may not be worth your time and money.
3. Realize that you can be a parent and support your kids without giving up your own life and your family's life. Just because you do not put your kids in a 6-7 day a week soccer program does not mean that you do not support them or their dreams. You can get a soccer goal in the backyard and encourage them to practice on their own or with friends. If they really love it, they will.
4. Don't be afraid to tell the coach to beat it. Remember, you are THEIR customer. If enough parents step up and tell the coach or organization they don't want to practice on Sunday, they will have the choice to either listen and end those practices or lose customers.
5. Realize that if your child is going to be a great athlete, they will find a way to do it. It actually does not require you to spend every single day of your life shuttling them to and from practices and games. They will jump rope at home to get quicker, they will juggle the soccer ball endlessly in the backyard, they will ask if they can go to the park to play pick up basketball with their friends.
I truly believe in the value of youth sports and what it can do for our children, otherwise I would not do what I do. However, its importance in our children's lives and impact on the quality of our life as parents and as a family needs to be re-evaluated. Yes, our children can learn valuable life lessons from sport, but they can learn those lessons at home too. We can live a happier life, have more money and have better relationships with our children by reducing the commitments of our kids. We may just find that our kids are happier too.
-Keith Van Horn - I'm a husband, father, entrepreneur, coach, writer and former University of Utah All-American and NBA Basketball Player. I blog about youth sports policy and issues, parenting young athletes, college basketball and occasionally a little more.