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Kindling a Fire: All Play and No Fun: The Professionalism of Youth Sports

Kindling a Fire: All Play and No Fun: The Professionalism of Youth Sports

One of my favorite memories of growing up in Indian Hill is playing pickup basketball or little league baseball at Stephan Field with my friends. It usually wasn’t terribly well organized or well played, but we had a lot of fun, strengthened our relationships, and maybe even improved our skills.

These days, though, if you see a child playing sports, it’s more likely that the kids will be playing their fifth game of the weekend at a club tournament with dozens of adults tracking their every move. And it’s more likely than ever that the children will be feeling the pressure to specialize in a single sport at an early age.

One result of this cultural shift is that today’s athletes are quite simply better than they used to be. Access to more regular and sophisticated training has significantly improved the skill level of the average young athlete. With apologies to Eric Fischer, Max Comisar, and the rest of my legendary fifth-grade Indian Hill baseball team, I don’t think we’d measure up to the fifth graders of today.

But I do worry that something important has been lost in the increasing professionalization of youth sports. In our zeal to train our kids to be the best athletes, we are risking more frequent injuries, causing more pervasive burnout, and making many kids feel left out of the joy of sports. As is true in other areas where hyper-intensive parenting prevails, this new philosophy towards youth sports can cause unintended harm in its quest to develop the perfect resume for teenagers.

For example, multiple studies have shown that increased specialization and year-round play lead to more injuries. In one study, researchers found that teens who spend more hours practicing a sport per week than their age (i.e., a 12-year-old practicing for 13 hours or more) were 70% more likely to sustain an overuse injury. Another study found that practicing a sport for eight months or more per year made an athlete three times more likely to sustain an overuse injury.

Interestingly, some research even indicates that early specialization in a sport leads to greater physical inactivity as an adult. This counterintuitive result is likely due to burnout, which is another known risk of overly intensive training at young ages. Over 70% of youth sports participants quit organized athletics by the time they are 13 years old. Plenty of top players are victims of the pressure and stress to succeed at young ages and end up quitting the game they once loved. In some studies, early specialization is the best predictor of an early exit from organized sports.

At some level, the focus parents place on their children’s athletic development is understandable. Every parent wants their child to succeed and to discover the unquestionable benefits that come from participating in sports. And it can be difficult to resist the lure of specialized training when so many of a child’s peers may be signing up for club and travel teams. Additionally, a number of parents are hoping that athletics can lead to college scholarships or preferred admission, especially given how intensely competitive college admissions are today.

But in this respect, intensive youth sports training can often be fool’s gold. First, there is mixed evidence suggesting that intensive, specialized training leads to more college scholarship opportunities. In one study, 88% of college athletes played multiple sports growing up, and the vast majority did not specialize before age 13. At higher levels, this also proves true: every year, the overwhelming majority of NFL first-round draft picks were multi-sport athletes in high school.

And even if scholarship opportunities are on the table, they can amount to less than they seem. Families often spend tens of thousands of dollars and thousands of hours on club and travel sports teams, only to realize later that the scholarship dollars available from colleges are rather modest. For example, a Division I baseball team has only 11.7 scholarships to allocate among 27 players, which means even some of the best players only receive a few thousand dollars of scholarship support. Families hoping that there is a pot of gold at the end of the travel baseball rainbow are often disappointed.

Finally, this outcome-focused approach to youth athletics can sometimes ignore the best interests of the kids. Children today need more free, unstructured play away from adults to develop their own self-efficacy and resilience. Hyper-intensive youth sports provides the opposite setting by constantly supervising children and instilling a transactional approach to play.

As the father of two boys, I struggle with this dilemma every day. But while I can’t unwind the $19 billion youth sports industry overnight, I do have two suggestions:

  1.  If your child is an athlete, expose them to multiple sports. There’s nothing wrong with joining a club team or training hard at a chosen sport. But make sure that an athlete gets experience engaging in multiple sports. At Country Day, we still require all Middle School students to play three sports so that they take new risks, develop new skills, and make new friends. Sometimes they learn they have untapped potential or unknown interests in a sport they may not have considered. Other times, they simply train their bodies in different ways from the year-round effort they’re already engaged in. I’m proud that some of our top athletes in high school – including Division I college signees – are key contributors to multiple varsity sports at CCDS.
  2. Make sure that the child is as invested in the team as the adults. Youth sports should be about children, not grownups. Take regular stock of why a child is participating in a sport, and ensure it’s based on their intrinsic desires, not some potential future reward advocated by an adult. There’s nothing wrong with pushing your kids to play a sport – in fact, I believe there is immense value in athletics – but check in to see if the “why” still makes sense for parent and player alike.

Whether your child is a star athlete or a benchwarmer like me, I hope they get to experience some of the pure joy of sports that I remember so fondly from my days at Stephan Field. With the right approach, every kid can be a winner.

"Kindling a Fire" is a column submitted regularly to Indian Hill Living by Head of School Rob Zimmerman '98. This ran in the December 2023 edition of the publication.