A few years ago, when our youngest was 12, he waited for a pause in dinner conversation, then cleared his throat and told us that he did not want to play competitive sports anymore. For a moment, the family was stunned into silence.

Full disclosure: for the past decade, we’ve been that family, the one living and breathing our kids’ sports: driving cars full of cleated kids to remote, windblown corners of California to set up goals, sell cookies, shoot photos, run the clock, keep stats and even, yes, coach the teams. We’ve split up to attend different events and foregone family vacations to fly to other states for tournaments. Even as I write, I’m in the midst of organizing a trip to San Diego for my daughter’s high school lacrosse team.

Devotion to our children’s athletic endeavors has “paid off”: our oldest child competes on her university’s beach volleyball team, and our second was recruited to play college lacrosse. Because their sports required huge investments of time and money, my husband and I vowed to never get ahead of our children. They had to be eager to make sacrifices (miss school dances, family vacations, etc.) and at least appear thankful for our financial and logistical support. As it turned out, both daughters love their sports, despite the sacrifices involved. When our son began to play soccer, basketball, and lacrosse, we assumed the status quo: a yearly calendar jam-packed with sports priorities. It was jarring to hear he wasn’t happy. What did we do wrong?

The loss of the pickup game

Over the past 50 years, youth athletics has gone from a world where kids far outnumber adults to one increasingly inhabited by adults. Adult financial motives have fueled this change, and the climate of youth sports has grown, like our society, highly competitive and striated. At times it seems the very interests of those at the heart of these programs – young people themselves – get lost.

In middle- and upper-income communities, ambitious programs feed families into expensive, time-consuming regimes, even for kids with little desire to play college sports. A year in a typical competitive soccer program (cheaper than many other sports, such as swimming, gymnastics, or ice hockey) can cost more than $2,000 with additional hundreds in tournament fees, a couple of hundred in uniform and equipment costs, and literally hundreds of hours of commuting to and from practices and games. One family profiled in Money magazine with four soccer-playing boys discovered they were spending over $17K per year.

On the other end of the spectrum, in the low-income families that are home to 45 percent of our children, youth have far fewer athletic options. Budgets have been slashed for many P.E. and sports programs, affordable local leagues are dwindling, and games like sandlot baseball and pickup basketball have almost disappeared due to parental concerns over safety.

The youth travel sports industry was worth an estimated 7 billion dollars in 2014, but recent studies show us that despite monetary expenditures, we’re failing the majority our children. Data from a 2014 Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) report shows an almost 9 percent drop in active kids between 2008 and 2013, and 2.6 million fewer kids played organized team sports – basketball, soccer, track, baseball, football, softball – during that same five-year period. An analysis by the Aspen Institute’s Project Play initiative revealed a glaring socio-economic divide in organized sports. For example, 43 percent of youth swimmers in this country come from a family with a household income over $100,000. For lacrosse, that number is 56 percent, and only 4 percent of children playing lacrosse come from low-income households.

These numbers echo the experience of Jill Vialet, the founder of Playworks, an Oakland, California based nonprofit that works in low-income urban schools where recess and after school programs have been cut. “For 80 percent of the families we serve, this is their first experience with competitive sports,” says Vialet. “The travel sports phenomena is painted as the ‘new normal,’ but that’s only in a select privileged environment. Only 17 percent of kids nationwide participate in any kind of after school sports programs.”

According to Vialet, the lack of opportunity for kids to go to open spaces unsupervised, play with kids of all ages, and make up their own rules has stripped kids of important long-term benefits. The loss of these spaces, she says, cuts across all economic classes, and although middle- and upper-class kids have more athletic opportunities, the “win at all costs” environment of adult-run competitive programs alienates kids who are not fiercely competitive. Which, it turns out, is exactly what happened to my son.

Too much too soon

One of my daughters was physical and competitive from day one; for her, participation in multiple sports seemed predestined. Our other daughter joined a sports team in high school after a significant tragedy; the camaraderie, endorphins, and singular focus of practice saved her from depression. But my son didn’t have athletic ambitions — and the elite aspirations that became part of the ambient air when he hit middle school turned him off. Suddenly, he was part of a world of fiercely focused kids, whose highly invested parents and elite coaches expected excellence even in their youngest players. The natural result was children getting serious about one sport and specializing early.

“Specialization is bad in my opinion, and in the opinion of almost any college coach I’ve talked to,” says Theresa Sherry, a former UC Berkeley Women’s Lacrosse Head Coach and the founder of Tenacity10, a lacrosse club with teams in California, Texas, and Oregon. Sherry believes playing multiple sports creates better, happier, and less-injury prone athletes, but she acknowledges that it’s become difficult for most kids to play a diversity of sports in part because of the club sport commitment. In 2013, the Journal of Sports Sciences published a widely-cited report recommending against early specialization, and MomsTeam, an organization providing guidance for sports parents, followed up with an extensive list of myths and facts around specialization. In 2014, in a position statement on overtraining syndrome and burnout in youth sports, the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine recommended against early specialization for greater long-term success. An American Medical Society study of UCLA Division 1 athletes found that 88 percent had played multiple sports, further throwing into question the value of specialization.

But misguided adult notions seem to be steering the truck. Sherry sees the epidemic of unrealistic expectations up close: parental overvaluation of their child’s ability and fantasies about scholarships. “Scholarships are very rare in most sports,” Sherry explains. The NCAA sets a limit on what teams can offer, and with the exception of revenue sports like football and basketball, most college teams are splitting their scholarship money among dozens of players. “Participation in sports is valuable for children for so many other reasons and the focus on college recruiting can take away from those other benefits.”

Bewildered

Although polar opposites in their approach to youth games, Playworks and the Tenacity10 lacrosse club have a common goal: the desire to develop a young person’s self-esteem and intrinsic motivation. But omnipresent parental involvement can hinder that development.

“As parents, our intentions are honorable and admirable, but it’s like we’re in a weird self-sustaining system,” says Playwork’s Vialet, who has five children of her own. “You’d never want to be the only parent who didn’t attend the game.”

On the sidelines of club tournament games in far-off places, I’ve often heard parents discussing the fact that our parents were oblivious. That was my experience. I loved tennis, soccer, and track, but my parents rarely followed the details of my sporting life even when I was on a champion team. The motivation for our childhood involvement in sports came only from our young selves. Our parents owned no part of it. As I set out deli fixings on the teams’ foldout table on the third day of a faraway tournament, I recall telling a fellow parent how much healthier this hands-off approach was.

We’re happy to spend time with our children, and the carrot of a feel-good win or a standout performance by our child is, whether we admit it or not, always looming. But there’s also a feeling of bewilderment in the air, as if we’ve being swept along by something we don’t quite understand. We had all, at some point, and perhaps without much reflection, responded to the call for tryouts, written checks, filled the car with gas, and made the journeys to the sports complexes in Antelope, Clovis, or Las Vegas. The result of this mass phenomenon includes everything from the kid so thrilled with their sport they can’t resist doing extra jumping jacks as they wait on the sidelines to the sulky kid dragged to a tournament by grumpy parents, only to sit on the bench moping for two days. Innate interest and athletic skill varies from child to child, but our collective willingness to spend time and money on the demands of youth sports teams does not.

Clark Omholt is a Northern California father with two exceptionally athletic daughters whose family, after much consideration, eschewed the natural progression to travel teams. “There’s a culture around these travel teams, and I felt like we were getting caught up in it. But when we sat down to talk about it as a family, we realized there were a number of things we didn’t like about that culture.” Omholt was a big fan of the local rec teams because his daughters were playing with kids from all walks of life, not just the wealthy who can afford the travel. Also, it was clear the travel team regime would take away from the family’s time together and their activities beyond sports. “The travel schedules send the message to kids that their sports are the most important part of a family’s life, and that, in my opinion, is not the healthiest message.”

“Most of us won’t go on to be professional athletes, or even play in college,” says Vialet. “But it’s like there’s no place left for those of us in the middle zone, who want to play and learn to love sports. The whole goal is just to carry that joy with us into our adult lives. That’s the gift we want to give our children.”

#1 most important job

We’ve all heard stories and seen videos (or real-time travesties) of rabid parents behaving badly. In my personal experience, misery around youth sports happens when parents are overextended and their child doesn’t play or the team loses regularly. Families feel drained, like they’re coming up empty-handed.

According to Jim Thompson, founder of the nonprofit Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA), says that’s why we need a paradigm shift. “Most parents are actually well-intentioned, so we have to look at the system, the organizational culture,” says Thompson. “What’s driving bad behavior?” The dominant model in youth sports is what he calls “entertainment sports culture,” which is only about the win instead of an “endless procession of teachable moments.” According to Thompson’s ideal model, parents allow coaches sole responsibility for training and the scoreboard, while parents focus solely on building character.

Christa Curtin, MA, PhD, a psychologist whose uses positive psychology in her practice counseling teens, suggests that parents use sports as a platform for talking about things other than winning. “In our goal-oriented society, we do not always focus on the process and the progress, the everyday moments of joy and hard work, but that’s where we’ll find the value of sport. Keep the discussion about hard work and effort and gratitude for the people who provide support for your child,” says Curtin. “And stay open to your child moving in another direction, away from their sport.”

Less structured — and happier?

We’re raising our children in what has been called the Age of Anxiety, an information-drenched era in which we learn about concerns we never could have imagined, each and every day. In the context of this big bad world, organized sports provide a safe and controlled environment. We know where our children are after school and on weekends, and that they’re with adults, often including ourselves. But at what cost do we achieve this sense of security?

My husband and I believed sports teams would be the healthiest environment for our son, but we didn’t consider his temperament. He, unlike his sisters, does not carry the “eye of the tiger” gene. Organized sports were not fun for him. As we have discovered since, surf at the beach or a skate park provide the space, independence, and creative potential that make him want to be active and dedicated. In these informal settings he pursues athletic goals on his own terms. He finds his own mentors, usually in the form of boys a few years older than he. “It’s not just that they teach me and encourage me,” he tells me. “They do, but they also get mad at me if I cut them off or do something else rude.” He also benefits by mentoring younger kids, an act of service that doubles as a tangible measurement of his progress.

Jim Thompson of PCA tells the story of a boy who played team sports for a period of time, but then fell in love with snowboarding. “The main reason he said he loved snowboarding,” Thompson says, “was because his father knew nothing about it.”

As parents, we won’t get to be as hands-on when our children choose their own arenas, nor may we get the insta-rush of a win, or the possibility of a future scholarship. But, as was the case in our family, there’s potential to gain something infinitely better: a happy child.

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