When our son started Kindergarten, my husband and I thought it would probably be a good idea to get him involved in a sport. Soccer seemed like a good idea – a bunch of kids running around on a field. Sounds like fun! Every Saturday morning, we would go to the local field to watch the kids run, kick, and generally have a great time.
In the spring, my son decided he wanted to play tee-ball. So, again we signed him up and off we went – every Saturday morning to watch him hit a ball off a tee and pick dandilions when it was his turn to play in the outfield.
By third grade everything had changed.
The kids in his class became divided – the ones who were die-hard soccer players were trying out for travel teams and the baseball players were arguing which of the town’s two recreational leagues was better. And the teams which had been co-ed, were now split into girls soccer, boys soccer and the baseball teams had a handful of girls in the entire league.
Choosing to play baseball, our son’s one Saturday game became two weekly games – one on Saturday, one during the week – with practices squeezed in between. Parents began hiring private pitching and hitting coaches for their kids, or took training matters into their own hands – one father boasted that he took his son out every day to hit, field, and throw 100 balls. My husband’s games of catch with our son paled in comparison.
Two years later, I have discovered that what I thought was over the top is commonplace throughout the country. Private training – often with former elite athletes – is required if kids want to play in the “All Star” leagues in all sports…and believe me, the kids know which are the best teams and who the best players are – doesn’t everyone want to be an “All Star?” The kids are driven by competition among themselves to be part of the best programs. Tryouts are mandatory and everyone knows if you don’t make the teams. For a fifth grader, not making the cut is a humiliation of the highest order.
But it’s not only baseball or soccer. The parents of kids on swim, lacrosse, gymnastics, basketball, hockey, and of course, football teams travel throughout New England and the Mid-Atlantic states for tournaments and meets. Think this level of competition is only limited to sports? It’s not, youth orchestras travel to competitions too, sometimes in Europe (cha-ching!). Dance camps and performing arts camps are equally selective and exclusive.
Of course all of this comes at a price, both financial and emotional. Private pitching lessons start at about $65 per hour, travel soccer teams can cost upwards of $1,000 per season with the league bringing in private coaches and tournament fees – and you have to travel to, and spend the night at, the tournament locations. Don’t even get started on the costs of hockey or lacrosse equipment. I’m a little ashamed to say that we dropped almost $150 on a bat. And don’t forget summer camps that focus on a particular sport…they start somewhere in the vicinity of $450 per week and skyrocket from there.
Emotionally, of course the pressure that the kids are under can be intense. Pressure from their coaches, parents, and peers to perform. And the kids themselves are often their own worst critics. Practices, games, and tournaments eat up weekends and leave parents scrambling on weekday nights to get the kids fed and to their games (heaven help you if you have multiple kids). Oh, and homework…there’s that too.
So you ask yourself – what is all this for? Bottom line – the kids do have fun when they’re playing and they learn a lot about teamwork and fortitude and winning or losing graciously. But there’s an ulterior motive as well – and that’s scholarships. Recruiters for our area’s elite private high schools start looking at the cream of the crop in middle school and college recruiters have their eyes peeled for the next LeBron James by sophomore year – sometimes earlier. Sure, sports scholarships have been around for as long as there have been sports teams – but now there’s more competition and the investments are higher. It used to be if you were a talented athlete, you had a chance at a scholarship – now there’s an entire industry pinning parent’s hopes on the possibility that their kid could be on the receiving end of several thousand dollars – or at least a championship trophy to list on a college resume.
Us? Yes, we are guilty of dropping some cash on a fancy bat, one private batting lesson, and a Yankees-sponsored weeklong summer camp…but we’re hedging our bets and saving the rest of our money for college.