In 1817 the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the term Suspension of Disbelief in his publication, Biographia Literaria or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions. Here's how Coleridge's Suspension of Disbelief works: When reading a fictional book, it is often required to believe a premise you would not accept in real life in order to enjoy it. The plot generally starts with and keeps a certain degree of believability, otherwise it gets too outrageous and you lose interest. However, sometimes the plots go far beyond what you think could realistically happen. If the premise of the story begins as outrageous and it maintains that consistency, the story becomes believable. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy is a good example. The books and movies do a great job of consistently being outrageous within their own universe, we become immersed in them and we ultimately end up believing them even if only for a short, specific period of time.
You are probably thinking, "what the (insert your word of choice here) does this have to do with youth sports and college scholarships, or has Keith has officially lost it?" Stay with me here. Give me a few paragraphs to explain. Here are some definitions I have created for the Suspension of Disbelief as it relates to a young athlete's participation in youth sports and that participation leading to an athletic scholarship:
Suspension of Disbelief [suh-spen-shuhn ohv dis-bi-leef]
1. a parents willingness to suspend one's critical faculties and believe the (almost unbelievable) reality that their child is going to receive an athletic scholarship.
2. a parents sacrifice of facts, realism and logic for the sake of believing that their child is going to receive an athletic scholarship.
3. putting aside doubt or skepticism for the belief in a child's ability to receive an athletic scholarship.
Elite youth sports is its own universe, like the Lord of the Rings, and the coaches and operators have created a false reality in which we believe that it is necessary for our kids to practice 5 days a week, work with a private trainer and get a speed and agility coach. They tell us that if our children are committed, and we pay a substantial amount of money, it will lead to fame, glory and the aforementioned... athletic scholarship. Here comes the hook; Despite our doubts and skepticism, we suspend our critical faculties and put aside facts for the belief in our child's ability to earn that scholarship. It is easy to fall into this fiction. I love to have teachers and coaches tell me that my kids are just that good; that they have the potential to do X, Y and Z. What parent doesn't? So we drink the Kool Aid. My favorite is grape.
However, as parents, we need to remind ourselves that the youth sports universe is not based in reality. It is often manufactured fiction and its plot begins as outrageous and maintains its consistency. We have adult friends telling us that Judy must stay on the top team with this club, or she is not going to get that scholarship. The coaches tell us that if we just double our practice time she will make it! And we have organizations whose tagline is, "Preparing Female Athletes for the Next Level of Play," even though very few of their players make it to the "next level." Many youth organizations use the allure of potential athletic college scholarships to get parents to over commit their lives to youth sports. We cannot get sucked into this Suspension of Disbelief like we would in a book of fiction or a movie.
Let's look at the facts straight from the NCAA website. Below is a graphic that shows the number of current high school athletes from six sports and what the odds are of them PLAYING college sports and then moving on to professional sports. Note that this includes non-scholarship athletes as well, so the percentage of those receiving an athletic scholarship is actually much lower.
While these numbers clearly send a message about the reality of the situation, my college basketball coach, future Hall of Famer Rick Majerus, used to say, "Statistics conceal as much as they reveal." What the statistics above don't show is that there are 51 million children playing youth sports in America today. That means there are tens of millions of youth sports participants that don't even make it to participate in high school athletics. If you backed all of those kids into the statistics above, what would it reveal? It would reveal that less than 1% of kids playing youth sports today will go on to receive an athletic scholarship. Yet we still have youth coaches and organizations telling us it is worth it. Hey Kool Aid! Is my tongue purple?
To be fair, a lot of coaches and organizations are not even aware of the fictional universe they help create. They often are just trying to make a living doing something they love and may not even understand that the words that come out of their mouths have no basis in reality. Although, some know it and are expert producers at creating the Suspension of Disbelief. You know that coach, even if you just can't quite get around to calling "bulls*#^," because you and I just want to believe. But some coaches are like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show. They live in a bubble spending their days talking about scholarship this and scholarship that, without even knowing the facts. These coaches and organizations need the truth too.
I know the facts and as Executive Director of Colorado Premier Basketball Club, I still have talked to kids about college scholarships, because there are kids that are just that good, or at least I think they are. I often find myself battling reality vs. fiction to stay out of this cultural trap. Out of the nearly 2,000 kids that have came through our programs in the past 2 years, I have talked with approximately 10 kids about their chances of playing beyond college. Still, I need to be careful about what I say and make sure that scholarships are never the focus of our programs.
If youth sports parents, coaches and organizations begin to base their decisions and actions on logic and facts, then we can all move towards a youth sports environment that actually provides our children with what they need and not a nearly empty promise of an athletic scholarship. A great place for them to have fun, get some exercise and learn to love sport and fitness. A place where they can learn to show humility when they win. A place where they can lose without feeling like they are letting the whole world down and learn to bounce back from it. Let's create a youth sports environment that allows family vacations. Then maybe on one of those family vacations, your daughter will come up to you and say, "Mom, do you want to go for a run together on the beach?" And you will know you did it right.
-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.