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The future of youth sports: Will less become more?

UPDATED: Fri., April 10, 2020

Mount Spokane’s Kannon Katzer runs the ball against Peninsula during the first half of a playoff high school football game on Nov. 15 at Joe Albi Stadium in Spokane. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Mount Spokane’s Kannon Katzer runs the ball against Peninsula during the first half of a playoff high school football game on Nov. 15 at Joe Albi Stadium in Spokane. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

It’s a vicious cycle for many parents neck deep in youth sports. Pay an exorbitant amount of money for travel athletics, chauffeur children to myriad practices and far-flung games. Repeat ad nauseum. That dizzying and draining lifestyle has been my norm for a dozen years. Ever since my 17-year-old son, Eddie, started travel ice hockey in 2008, I’ve been on the run with him and his 14-year-old brother, Milo.

The novel coronavirus is the reason sporty families are on a forced break from what has been a relentless constant in our lives. Every year, my boys play travel baseball, travel ice hockey, and, since middle school, they’re part of the football team, as well. Every autumn, I would crack that I never let my boys play more than three sports in a season.

One fall, Milo was committed to three sports from September through November. His grades didn’t suffer. The reality is his marks plummeted the more he engaged in video games, which he doesn’t have time for with a busy sports regimen. However, it was a parenting mistake, since Milo was exhausted due to the brutal fall schedule.

Milo would practice football every day from 3-6 p.m., which featured endless drills under the hot sun. He would have time for a drink and an apple for an even more intense ice hockey practice two nights a week inside a frigid rink from 6:30 p.m.-8 p.m. Ice hockey games and fall ball baseball contests comprised much of the weekend.

His ice hockey coach, a win-at-all-cost character, twice escorted us into the general manager’s office to question us about Milo’s commitment to the team. Milo was 12. There is a wave of pressure on prepubescents that simply didn’t exist a decade ago when Eddie was entering the realm of youth sports.

Expectations from parents are often unrealistic. Many pay through the nose hoping their children are going to reach an athletic echelon that is beyond them. Is the coronavirus hiatus the perfect period to ask whether we should be paying a small fortune for our young athletes?

“I think now is the time to access where we should go next with athletics for our children,” Amy Giddings said while calling from her Philadelphia office. Giddings, an associate professor and academic director of the Master of Science in Sport Business Program at Temple University who holds a doctorate in sport psychology, doesn’t believe much will change for urban families.

“Many children in an urban environment didn’t have access to travel teams and coaches that are paid well,” Giddings said. “They have to get creative and play in rec centers. I don’t see much of a change there.” However, there could be a difference for those in suburbia.

“The question for many parents now is going to be if they’re able to handle youth sports financially,” Giddings said. “Families may be in a different situation after the financial fallout of the coronavirus. Another question for families is asking why are we spending all of this time and money on youth sports.

“Is it worth it? Why are families doing it? If it’s to develop a professional athlete, well the odds are against you. The chances your child might become a professional athlete is around a .10 of 1%. So the big question is it their dream and your dream?”

Giddings said many children play for the sake of their parents. Sports is what Mom and Dad want for their kids, and it’s a way to bond with them on those long drives to games. Giddings offered why it’s so important for parents to devote their weekends and much of their weekday evening to youth sports.

“Many parents tie their value to what their kids accomplish in their sport,” Giddings said. “Parents talk to their friends and colleagues about what success their child plays. What their child does reflects on them, and sports success is so revered.

“This is all from this generation. If you go back a generation, parents did not do this. They were probably more apt to make fun of their kids then. However, these days parents tie their self-worth to their kids.”

Over they years, I’ve had friends ask why I “make” my boys play ice hockey, which is hilarious. Kids have to be driven to play a sport in which there are a plethora of skills to master, in this case skating, stick-handling, shooting, passing and checking. And then there is the ability to grind it out and have a tolerance for pain.

When Milo was 6, I was irresponsible, and we stayed at a neighbor’s party until midnight. Milo had an ice hockey game at 5:45 a.m., which meant that we had to rise an hour earlier. When I told him it was time to get ready, Milo groaned. “I’m so tired. I feel terrible.” I walked out of his room, and I was about to message the coach. A minute later, he popped out and said, “I’m ready. Let’s go!”

I’ve never forced my children to play a sport, but I’m aware that it happens. A few years ago, a friend’s son was a reluctant hockey player. I asked the dad why he made his kid take the ice. “He’ll thank me when he’s playing in beer leagues as an adult,’ was the response.

Maybe he won’t. The child didn’t make it through the season and never played hockey again. A week ago, I asked my children what they want out of sports, and if they would like to focus more on music and art, which they enjoy.

Eddie, who received a baseball scholarship a few months ago, gave up all other extracurricular activities to focus on pitching and is locked in. Milo believes it’s time to sell his ice hockey gear and zero in on baseball and to play football.

“My upside is baseball, but I love football,” Milo said. “I can’t call a bunch of friends when I’m 26 to put on the gear to play football. It’s now or never, and I love the contact that I’m going to miss from not playing hockey.” Fair enough.

“It really is best to see what they truly want to do,” Giddings said. “It’s ultimately their life. The problem with youth sports is that it can become the parent’s life. Hopefully during this down time, we can see what really matters. Maybe the break due to the coronavirus will change the way some people think.”

Perhaps when the coronavirus abates, parents and children can continue to indulge in the free time families are enjoying now with hikes in the park and game nights. Maybe the new mantra when it comes to youth sports is that less is more. There are other options for our children, but will we exercise those possibilities?

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