Too much competition, not enough fun

  • Article by: TIM TURNER
  • Updated: August 10, 2012 - 1:39 PM

It's wearing out young athletes. Plus, it places incredible stress on families.

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Like a lot of today's youths, I spent much of my childhood on ballfields and basketball courts. But that's where the similarity ends.

My dad played softball several nights a week in those days, and spent winters playing amateur basketball. I loved going with him to his games. He had "retired" from sports when first married as a commitment to his new family, but he came out of retirement when my brother and I got older, because he wanted to show us how to play.

At Dad's games, he would let me warm up with him, playing catch in the summer, shooting baskets in the winter. I would often keep the scorebook or clock, and there was always time afterward for some pop flies or a game of H-O-R-S-E.

I wanted to grow up and play ball just like my dad -- and I have. I'm 55 and still playing fast-pitch softball and basketball. I love it as much today as I did when I was 15.

Having raised a couple of athletes and coached youth sports all of my adult life, I find it fascinating to see how much things have turned around. Today, a dad's life consists almost entirely of being a spectator at his kids' games; the child's team is the center of everything for most families.

Kids today see their parents solely in the roles of chauffeur, cheerleader, and chief critic of coaches and umpires. This shift has been part of an explosion of competitive youth sports in the past 20 years.

Today, youth teams sport the finest uniforms and play extensive schedules, complete with regular weekend travel that includes hotels and meals that back in the day even most smaller college programs would not have undertaken.

Some of this is good. Dads being more involved in their kids' activities for the most part is good. However, there are some difficult realities about this new, kid-centered phenomenon that should give us pause.

A recent survey by the National Alliance for Youth Sports says that 75 percent of all kids who begin youth sports at age 8 or younger drop out by age 13. Unfortunately, many of these kids are not continuing on in any kind of sport into adulthood, and it's not hard to see why.

Our new age of competitive youth sports have created a mentality in which kids believe that if they aren't on a travel team or on the varsity, they aren't any good and sports is not for them. I've heard from many youths who would rather quit a sport altogether then, heaven forbid, play on the local "house" team for "fun" -- a fate worse than death for a kid in the peer-pressure-packed world of youth sports.

Growing up, I would go to the local high school basketball game and be amazed at the crowds, the warmup jerseys and the atmosphere. I couldn't wait to maybe someday be a part of it all. Our kids today have "been there and done that" by age 12. Is it any wonder that they're bored with the whole thing and drop out by middle school?

When every game means something and tournaments have to be won every weekend, it wears a young athlete out (often along with their parents). It places incredible stress on families who regularly give up 10 to 12 weekends in a winter just so their child can play on a travel team.

When these kids drop out and are no longer the focus of the family, they often aren't sure where to turn. We are seeing the effects of this mentality far beyond the athletic fields. This inordinate emphasis on their teams, their success and their experience leaves many youths lost in areas where they are no longer the center of the universe.

The sad thing is that in our desire to provide opportunities for our children, we may actually be driving them away from sports -- from learning how to enjoy such activities in a way that will last a lifetime. To reverse this trend, parents need to be realistic and resist the idea that all youth sports have to be at a high competitive level to be beneficial.

In a recent Star Tribune profile, the great Lindsay Whalen made this astounding statement: "I had a 13-year-old girl ask me what she can do to get better, and I'm like, 'Play a lot of basketball.' I got more into drills and shooting in college. I just played, against guys and girls."

I heard Timberwolves Assistant General Manager Rob Babcock say something similar at a coaching clinic, lamenting that our kids are playing way too many competitive games, with very little time to reflect, practice and try out new skills.

Our kids need to play pickup games -- for fun! Parents may have to show them how it's done. It's a lost skill, because every game they've ever played in has been organized by an adult.

The key is to resist pressure from other parents and well-meaning youth organizations and think long-term, beyond age 13 for our children. House leagues are great, and your child has not failed as an athlete if he or she ends up playing there.

Sports are fun, and they're for everyone at all skill levels. Very few of our children are going to play varsity sports in high school, much less college athletics. But playing volleyball or softball with a group of friends can be a lifelong joy, a joy that just might be instilled if our kids saw us adults playing ball once in a while, too.

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Tim Turner, of Coon Rapids, has been a youth sports leader for decades. He works in the juvenile-justice system.

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