Monday, February 15, 2016

Parents and the insanity of the rise of youth travel sports

The best kind of soccer: In the back yard ...
Even if there may be an occasional injury ...

That requires being stretchered off the pitch.
This might not be a real popular blog post among many sports-minded parents. They might not be wanting to hear it. I might get cyber hate mail. I'm going to write it anyway.

It's been close to eight years now since an unforgettable moment that occurred on a baseball field and helped cement my opinion of youth travel sports. Ethan was 14 at the time and playing in a tournament in Danville, Va. Against my better judgment I had traveled with him to the tournament for the weekend so he could play baseball, the sport he loved. It was a lovely spring day, sometime in May. That's where the pleasant memories of the day ended, however.

During one of the games while legging out a single, Ethan had strained his hamstring. After checking on him I began walking over to the concessions stand to fetch a bag of ice, a journey that took me by the opposing team's dugout. As I was walking over to the concessions stand there were a couple of plays in the game that got the opposing team's manager riled up. Quite riled up. The second play was an incidental collision in a bang-bang play at first base in which his player, the running batter, pretty much got unintentionally taken out by one of our players. If I remember correctly, it was right after one of his batters had gotten hit unintentionally by the pitcher.

But the opposing manager was losing it. He was storming around and yelling and gesturing and essentially making a fool of himself. At a baseball game of 14-year-olds. As I was walking by the dugout watching this spectacle, I saw him turn to his team and tell them that if Gloucester was going to play like that then his pitcher would throw at their batter's head. I was stunned. What kind of coach tells his players to throw at the other team's heads? Especially a coach of 14-year-olds? It stopped me dead in my tracks and I blurted out to him, "Hey!"

What happened next, I kid you not, I am not making up. He looked right at me, grabbed his crotch in front of the team and everyone else and asked me if "I wanted to go." He wanted me to fight him right there basically. To say I was flabbergasted is an understatement. Behind me were parents of the opposing team's players sitting in the stands. I turned around, looked at them and asked if the Neanderthal behind me -- apologies to Neanderthals -- was their manager. When they nodded yes, I said, "That's embarrassing. My kid would never, ever play for him." Then I walked away.

I tell that story in the larger context of a trend that boggles my mind: The rise of youth travel sports. It's become more than a cottage industry. Crazy dollars are spent by parents in America on youth travel sports. This article in the Washington Post (Link: Youth sports gone wild) taps it at $7 billion annually. That's enough money every year to pay for around 220,000 kids to attend the average private college in America. Let me ask you something: What would be a better investment?

The rise in youth travel sports hasn't been driven by kids. It's parents. A lot of parents who have lost their collective minds if you ask me. If you're thinking you're going to get your kid a college scholarship, you are wasting your time and money. Your kid, yes yours, has a less than 1 percent of a chance of earning a college athletic scholarship.

My sense is that parents are doing it more for their own entertainment and to fulfill some sort of warped idea of parenting in which they have to have the best of everything for their kid. Taken to the limits that means thousands of dollars spent every year on topnotch equipment, coaching and team fees, travel costs and a whole bunch of other things. For kids as young as 8 or 9 years old.

From a pastor's perspective, youth travel sports represents a compromise: When it comes to Sunday morning games, what's more important? Church or the game? I've seen it happen almost every time. Church loses out. So what's the message to kids from mom and dad? Sports is more important than their faith. So parents, don't be too surprised if your kid walks away from his or her faith when they grow up. You've set the example and let your son or daughter know what's really important.

I am so thankful we didn't have youth travel teams growing up. I played parks and rec soccer, basketball and baseball and had a blast. I didn't have my entire weekends -- or weeks for that matter -- taken up by tournaments. I played a lot of pickup games with my friends during the year and if I didn't feel like playing, I didn't play. You think kids on travel teams have that luxury? Like they can really say, you know, I'm kinda sore today, or I really don't feel like playing today so I think I'll skip practice and do something else instead. Is it any wonder that there's a dramatic increase in injuries among kids who play year-round sports? Link: Kids get hurt

When I was growing up, our family vacations weren't built around my next travel team tournament. We had actual family vacations. You know, things like Disneyland, Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore, even Washington D.C. We even had vacations where we spent actual quality time with relatives and went to actual family reunions, not another reunion of my teammates' families at the Holiday Inn by the sports complex in Sportsaddictsville, U.S.A., followed by dinner at another Cracker Barrel.

I'm wondering how much of the youth travel sports is driven by insecurity. Maybe there's a fear among parents that if their kid doesn't play on a travel team that they are somehow not as good of parents as their friends or acquaintances whose kid is on a travel team. Maybe there's a fear they aren't doing what's best for their kid and would somehow be failing them. Maybe they just can't say no if their kid asks to play on a travel team.

Here's another thing parents. Your kids never get those years back. All that time spent shuttling them back and forth to practices, or going to tournaments, or going to Dick's Sporting Goods, or being at the tournaments and going to the doctor or the emergency room and I could go on and on ... Is it really worth it? You're the one making the decision for them. Can you live with it? Might there be better ways to spend time with your kids? Is there a balance in there between your kids' love of sports and not making it so all-important?

I'll finish with another story. Many years ago, one of my sons was on an All-Star baseball team at the age of 12. Much to my horror and shock, the coach of the team promised the kids that if they won the game he would take them to Hooters. I was in disbelief, as if I was living a "Bad News Bears" moment. When they won the game, I told my son he wouldn't be going to Hooters and explained why on his level, for reasons that included the objectification of women and the very nature of the restaurant itself. He was fine with it when I explained it to him.

Of the 12 boys on the team, my son was the only one who didn't go to Hooters. Later, a few parents came to me and said if they had known my son wasn't going, they wouldn't have let their 11- and 12-year-old sons go either. They didn't want their sons to go, but allowed them to go along with the team so they wouldn't be left out. Really? Folks, it's called parenting. You can make the right choices for your kids.

So parents, the ball is in your court, so to speak, with youth travel sports teams. What's the play?

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