I thought being a multi-sport child and DI college athlete would make me a fairly knowledgeable sports parent. I’m sure my memory of childhood sports 30+ years ago is a little rose-colored, but I’m startled about how much kids’ sports has changed, and how much trouble I’m having navigating these waters as I’m trying to be a healthy sport parent. I don’t remember the stress, the over-competitiveness, parents’ expectations weighing on kids to this extent. I saw it happen – especially in tennis, but I think it’s gotten exponentially worse over the past several years and I’m trying to figure out how to change it.
Sports had such an amazing impact on my life and left me with so many positive experiences. I still have amazing connections with high school and college teammates and can equate some of my resilience to skills I learned during my sports years.
Now, I’m a parent. My 12 year old son plays baseball. He’s a decent player for his age, but he’s not a superstar and definitely not MLB-bound. In the past 6 years, I’ve watched the number of kids playing baseball dramatically drop and the only kids left are the ones that play year-round.
This Fall, my son wasn’t interested in playing travel baseball after playing 40 games of tough travel ball over the summer but agreed to a tryout for a new AAU team that his cousin was looking at. When he got the callback for the 2nd round, he turned it down. He said, “Mom, I just want to have fun and play baseball with my friends back in town.”
Two weeks later, we find out that his town league cancelled the 13u season due to lack of players and coaches.
A city of 85k-90k people didn’t have enough interest or support to carry one single 13u baseball team.
What is happening?
Per John O’Sullivan in The Race to Nowhere in Youth Sports
“Every year over 40 million children are involved in youth sports. By age 13, over 70% drop out.” Over 70%
Adults put their own expectations of outcome on their kids – whether it’s obvious or not. I’m sure I’m guilty of it too.
What’s funny is that kids actually don’t play sports to win. Kids don’t list “winning” as a top 10 reason of why they play. They play for fun and to be with their friends.
It’s really beyond time we focus on their priorities, not ours.
Here’s what I’ve seen happen… every season, coaches get together and do a “draft”. Don’t ask me how legitimate or unbiased the draft is because I’ve never been in the room. But what happens is you get maybe 4 teams in each division (years ago, we had 6-7 teams each division). Of those 4, maybe 2-3 teams have experienced coaches – some of whom even coach together instead to spreading their experience around. 1 or 2 teams end up with new parents or coaches in the league who are not part of the club. Funny enough, the new coach ends up with a team with significantly less talent than the others.
What happens on that team is that they lose, a lot. Sometimes, they lose 23-0 and most of the kids don’t have more than a single at-bat. Occasionally, they actually have a close game, but can’t hold on and lose anyway. My older son has been on these teams for probably 5 seasons through his baseball career. He had at least 3 seasons where his team lost every single game. Not a single win. One season, they won one game. It’s hard to lose but since the focus is on winning, the kids, parents and coaches are all frustrated and the season becomes a grind, not fun.
My kid struggled hard through those seasons and tried to find ways to keep his teammates positive. My son loves baseball and knows that he will get to play more after the rough season is over. But what about the other kids? The ones who only play one season per year? If they aren’t playing more than one at-bat in a game? And when it’s so frustrating, why keep coming back? Why keep playing baseball when it’s so demoralizing? If you have 13 kids on a team like that every season and 1/3 don’t come back for the next season, you wake up one day and wonder why there are no kids left to coach.
Many moons ago, I’m sure local baseball leagues had over a thousand kids per season. Then, hundreds. Now, less than one hundred. Why? Because 70% of the kids that started playing baseball quit by age 12.
To add to the flight from town ball, now travel teams start at 8 or 9 years old. If you make baseball travel, you play over the summer. To make it next year, you should play during Fall too. And if you want to really ensure a spot on the team, you need to do winter clinics.
If you don’t make your town travel team or don’t like the coach, you move to AAU. If a parent feels your town travel team isn’t competitive enough, you move to AAU. You don’t like how the league is running things, you move to AAU. You’re a coach who doesn’t agree with the local little league board, you move to AAU. If the closest AAU team doesn’t have any spots, you create another AAU team and convince more families to leave the local league and join your AAU team. Parents move their kids to AAU from town leagues LIKE CRAZY now.
As a parent, you feel the pressure to move your kid to AAU. More than 5 people told me this summer that I need to get my kid on an AAU team right away if I want him to play high school ball ever. And that I might already be too late. What? My kid is 12! And I’m being told I’m hampering his baseball career.
If a kid isn’t labeled a superstar at 12, is his career over? If a kid is a superstar at 12, will he really always be one? What about kids who are still developing? What about families that can’t pay for year-round ball or $2,500 for single-season AAU costs? My kid did play AAU/prep ball and loved it! He was on the right team at the right time and unfortunately, we moved away from the area. I’m sure he will find another team that he will love once he gets there. But I’m sad that he HAS to leave rec/town baseball because we tried to fight it.
Love watching them play
This isn’t about blame or contrition, this is about finding a way to fix it. My 12 yr old will hopefully play for many more years, but my 9 yr old isn’t as strong of a player. He is on a team this season that is THAT TEAM. If we don’t keep his love for baseball through this season, maybe he will be one of the 70% that leave the sport before he’s 12.
I would hate to see boys who love baseball starting to hate it, and then leaving it behind.
In the last 2 weeks, this baseball experience collided with some unrelated, yet related, experiences: my audible.com listen of The Outward Mindset, my facebook feed find and re-watch of John O’Sullivan’s talk and my workplace speaker of Brian Miller (talking about the magic of connectivity). All of this put in perspective that you have choices to change your mindset – which is more than just behavior – and recognize that there is so much more beyond your own world.
You can look inward, for example: as a parent, focusing on what we want for them or for them to do, not paying attention to what the child wants.
Or outward, recognizing not only that every person/child has thoughts, feelings, fears and goals, but also beyond just you and your child and at the world around you.
As a parent in youth sports and a (former) Board of Education member, it is so easy to think about how each decision impacts YOUR CHILD, but what about the rest of the kids?
We need to change how we coach and parent youth sports. This isn’t about participation trophies – this is about changing our mindset to focus on our kids’ goals, giving them autonomy over their own experiences.
Kids play sports because they want to have fun with their friends. They quit because they are tired of the stress, of being yelled at, of being criticized.
Let go and enjoy watching them play.
As a parent, don’t coach them from the stands, don’t tear apart their game in the car, don’t focus on errors, mistakes, losses or ref/ump calls.
Focus on letting him/her play.
Sit back, let go of your expectations for them and just allow yourself to love watching them play. And after the game, tell them you love watching them play.
And if you are a coach or someone who can volunteer in the league, please consider focusing on the health and longevity of the league, the goal of helping kids play as long as possible with their friends! Find new ways to collaborate with other coaches to make it fun and educational for the kids. Our league had so many wonderful parents and volunteers who did the best they could against the forces at work. Maybe there is a chance to change youth sports culture if we all work towards the goals of making it the best organization for as many kids as possible rather than one single kid (our own)!