Shawn Worthy admits he’s a competitive guy – and a competitive parent, sometimes.
Yet even he was floored when a couple of moms he met at a pro junior golf tournament told him that their teen daughters would be entered in 30 such events this past summer.
“Why are these young ladies out on the golf course playing competitively four or five days a week?” Worthy asked himself.
His own 16-year-old daughter, Soleil, holds down a job while participating in a few tournaments each summer. She and the other young women are good, Worthy says, maybe talented enough to play in college.
But 30 tournaments?
“If you’re a future Olympian, I get it. But for these kids who will never reach that level, that’s what I don’t get,” says Worthy, a professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver with an interest in sports psychology.
“What does it say about our culture that we go to this extreme?” he asks. “And that we push our kids to this extreme?”
It’s not just golf. Many parents, coaches and researchers see a steady upping of the ante in youth sports, with kids whose families can afford the time and cost involved playing more, practicing more and specializing in one sport at younger ages.
Parents are driven by a desire to help their children stand out and the fear that, if they don’t, their kids will be left behind. To keep pace, they’re often traveling hundreds if not thousands of miles a year for games and tournaments. Some parents send their children to personal trainers, or to the growing number of “elite” training facilities that have opened in recent years.
Often, the goal is to simply land a spot on the local high school team, an accomplishment once taken for granted. Or, a young person may try to get on a roster in the growing private club team system – an even more exclusive route that some top teenage athletes are choosing, especially when high schools cut coaches and opportunities.
“It’s an athletic arms race,” says Scott VanderStoep, a psychology professor at Hope College in Holland, Mich., who studies youth sports.
And it starts early.
“It sort of spreads throughout the community and then it reduces down in age,” VanderStoep says. “If it’s OK for 14-year-olds, then it’s OK for a 12-year-old, or a 10-year-old.”
How can this obsession with playing sports exist in a country where the Centers for Disease Control say more than a third of young Americans are overweight or obese? The juxtaposition seems unlikely, but a longstanding survey from the National Sporting Goods Association found that youth participation in most team sports has steadily dropped in the last decade.
The number of 12- to 17-year-olds who played baseball in any kind of setting has, for instance, dropped 36 percent from 2001 to 2011, according to the survey. Basketball participation has dropped nearly 20 percent. Swimming and tackle football each dropped about 10 percent, volleyball participation 2 percent and soccer 1.4 percent.
Nonetheless, it would be oversimplifying to say the United States has become a nation of couch potatoes. Experts who track youth sports say many young people simply don’t have the chance to play, or resources to do so.
Some schools in cash-strapped districts have cut back on sports and physical education. And even in some wealthier districts, high school populations have grown, leaving more kids to vie for fewer spots on teams.
These dwindling opportunities have only fed the hyper-competitive atmosphere, says VanderStoep, who admits that, as a dad of two daughters who play volleyball, even he feels beholden to the system.
For his daughters, that has meant weight-lifting camps and tournaments, required practices and schedules packed with games that could be any night of the week – and have made it more difficult for his youngest daughter to find the time to play other sports.
“You feel obligated to do it. You want to give your kids the opportunity,” he says. “And if they don’t show up, they lose opportunities to play.”
Corinne Henson, a mom in suburban Chicago, knows about those hard choices. Her sons, 11-year-old Tyler and 14-year-old Dylan, play year-round baseball on different traveling teams and also manage to squeeze in basketball and football for their local park district.
The boys do it because they love it – live for it, really.
“I wouldn’t give up sports for anything,” Dylan says as he sits on the couch in his living room waiting for football practice to start.
“Me either,” his younger brother quickly adds.
But there are sacrifices, especially for their parents. Time spent on sports has meant giving up their longtime campsite in Indiana where they’d kept a travel trailer. They simply have no time to go there.
“Our vacations are baseball trips,” Henson says.
There is, however, one rule in the Henson house that does not bend: “Homework first,” says mom, who’s a teacher.
And that’s a perspective that Jon Butler, executive director of Pop Warner Little Scholars, an international youth football and cheerleading program, hears less and less.
He used to worry about overzealous coaches. But in more recent years, he’s watched as parents have clamored to find ways to improve their children’s athletic prowess.
He says his advice to them – “don’t hire a speed coach, hire a tutor” – is often met with disgust.
“It’s not what they want to hear,” he says.
Bill Jaworski, a dad who’s also a youth baseball coach in New Jersey, says he is often “shocked and chagrined” at how easily some parents lose perspective about their kids’ sports.
“These are people you see at the pub, or on the train, or out on the street.
“They’re just normal folks – and then you get them to the game and they turn into these rabid freakazoids,” says Jaworski, a philosophy professor at Fordham University.
He remembers learning baseball at the local park with friends or in the backyard. Today, he’s seeing kids as young as age 7 learning the skills at elite training facilities, some that focus on specific sports and others on overall fitness.