What’s wrong in kids’ sports, and how to fix it: “Take Back The Game”

Regular physical activity is good for you. We all know this, because our screens keep telling us so.

And sports are one way to engage in physical activity. A way that, for kids, can teach the values of teamwork, dedication, how to be gracious in victory or defeat. Many parents want their children to play sports for these lessons, and to encourage less phone time, more active time.

But something’s gone wrong with youth sports. Most kids who take up team sports quit them by their teens. The competition is more intense than ever, as (for many kids and parents) are the financial and time investments. The result of these pressures is that, often, youth sports are hurting kids more than helping them.

And Linda Flanagan wants to explain how this happened.

Flanagan, a longtime kids’ running coach, is the author of Take Back The Game, a recent book subtitled “How Money And Mania Are Ruining Kids’ Sports – And Why It Matters.” That subtitle is a handful to type, but the book itself is very approachable. And the subtitle does sum up much of what Flanagan has to say, without revealing the plot twist that might turn off some potential readers. That, basically, what’s harming kids is their overzealous parents.

Flanagan had to learn this the hard way; she did it, herself. As a former school star and competitive adult distance runner, she naturally wanted her kids to participate in sports. Two of them weren’t interested. Her youngest son was, and became very good at basketball. Flanagan loved seeing this, and loved thinking that her son was thriving because she was such a supportive parent.

Until she pressured him to attend a “basketball camp” for kids who hoped to gain college scholarships. Her son hated it. She didn’t understand why, at first – wasn’t it a great opportunity? Shouldn’t they pay $150 for a video record of his best moments on the court? “I’m not going back there,” he told her. “I’m nowhere near as good as those kids, and no one was interested in me.”

“Here, finally, I shut up and listened,” Flanagan writes:

Now I had clarity. My son had thrived in a competitive high school sport. He’d developed into a talented basketball player … He’d built close friendships with teenagers he’d otherwise not have known. And he’d grown into a responsible young man, serving as a team captain, assisting the coaches during the summer, and cultivating his already well-developed self-discipline. And it was still fun. Wasn’t that precisely what high school sports, indeed all youth sports, were supposed to be?

It took me years to acknowledge how much my son’s athletic career mattered to me, how much his star performances, when he had them, shored up my ego. And while the desire for social standing might be understandable, it’s not admirable.

This passage comes fairly early in Take Back The Game, and it hugely impressed me. It’s very different from the “psycho dad screaming at ump during Little League game” cliché we’re all familiar with. (Yes, those types exist; Flanagan has met them, and my brother did when he was a volunteer Little League ump in high school.) Flanagan’s talking about something else. She benefited from youth sports, she wanted that for her children, and still somehow ended up squeezing all the fun out of it for her son.

And Flanagan realizes why she fell into that trap. She talks to sports sociologist Jay Coakley, who believes that 1980s “greed is good” worship of individual success created a pressure for parents to see their children excel. Sports are one measurable way for them to do so. Spending a great deal of time and money on your child’s athletic career, Coakley says, sends “the message that ‘I’m a better parent than you.’” As Flanagan adds, “status is an awkward and delicate subject. No self-respecting adult wants to be accused of hungering for it … and yet the silent yearning for it seems to shape our thoughts and actions.”

The results of this parental “mania” (per the subtitle) have been disastrous. For one thing, it’s harming kids physically. Year-round training for one sport is causing a frightening rise in severe injuries, which several doctors describe to Flanagan as an “epidemic” – such as an orthopedic surgeon talking about UCL tears in 12-year-olds. There’s ACL tears in soccer and basketball. Stress fractures for runners. Lower bone density for girls (which can increase their chances of bone decay as adults). We all know about concussions in football; the worst increase in concussions now is coming from girls’ volleyball. (Not what I would have guessed.)

And while those injuries are mostly a risk to the most intensely-training young athletes, that very intensity is driving kids away. One study found that 70 percent of kids who try youth sports have quit for good by age 13, while another study said it was by age 11. And in both studies, kids quit because it was no longer fun. While government guidelines aim for a youth sports participation level of 63%, only Minnesota and Massachusetts have met this mark – and interest is dwindling among some Minnesota students.

Parents sometimes put unreasonable demands on coaches. Flanagan describes an incident where she accidentally didn’t schedule her team’s appearance at a prestigious track meet; she apologized to the team, modeling how adults should own up to their mistakes. And scheduled another meet that would be just as challenging athletically. Well, some parents called for her head. Didn’t Flanagan realize that her failure might have cost their daughters a college scholarship? (In those parents’ minds, at least.)

Other coaches, unfortunately, use discredited or even abusive methods to get “results” from their players. (Partially, this is due to a lack of training, as many coaches are volunteers.) Fat-shaming, forcing girls to wear skimpy uniforms, and using screaming/cruelty as motivators are not, ever, an effective way of instructing children. (Unless your goal is teaching them how to be terrible adults.)

Naturally, as parents have become more invested in kids’ sports, the youth sports business (I want to say, “racket”) has been utterly wallowing in money. Between specialized camps, private coaching, and the ever-soaring price of equipment, by 2019 the youth sports “industry” was worth over $19 billion. (Last year, over $39 billion.) The average family spends about $600 a year on each child athlete; the richest families, over $1000 a month. There are even websites that make money by charging a fee to see national rankings of youth teams and individual players.

(Incidentally, I’ve heard older people complain that kids “aren’t into” traditional “American” sports anymore, and “they’re all playing soccer now.” Well, with education cuts putting more sports costs onto parents, soccer’s just about the cheapest sport! All kids need are cleats and a ball!)

What, then, can be done to make sports good again for kids, and less stressful for their parents? Flanagan has several suggestions, from the simple to the idealistic.

One is just to let kids play. Let them organize their own outdoor activities with other kids in the neighborhood. I did when I was little, and I was scrawny & asthmatic. I still had fun, still had triumphs and failures, high-fives and bitchy kid arguments over rules, ending in either grudging consensus or going inside to watch cartoons.

While some of this is less common now for practical reasons (some neighborhoods simply don’t have many kids), much of it is based on parental fears that unsupervised children are at great risk of harm from strangers. This is false. Only 0.1 percent of missing children are abducted by strangers (the other 99.9% are adults the child knows, and children are very rarely abducted overall). The top causes of death for kids in 2020: guns, car crashes, drug overdoses, accidental poisoning, cancer, suffocation, drowning, congenital conditions, heart disease, fires, chronic respiratory disease. “If it was safe enough for you to play unsupervised outside when you were a kid,” writes one author who Flanagan quotes, “it’s even safer for your own children to do so today.”

(Pedestrian deaths from cars ARE rising, due to cars being larger, which increases their braking distance. It’s important to teach children traffic safety. We played some games in our apartment complex’s parking lot, and every kid was on the watch for cars coming in or backing out. If somebody spotted one, they’d dramatically yell, “CAR!” and we’d all clear the lot until the danger had passed.)

Some other suggestions Flanagan lists:

  • Start later. “Delay organized youth sports for as long as you can. Wait until the child begs to do them. Or even hold off until the child can largely take responsibility for the activity herself – sign-ups and transportation included.”
  • Know the coach. “Look for coaches who are not into sports but are into parenting, because they have more experience.” (Experience with real kids, not just athletic ones.) Know that when a good coach disciplines your kid fairly for something like skipping practice, it can be a useful lesson. And tolerate no coaches who are cruel.
  • Miss some games. “Be engaged enough to know the coach, but do yourself and your child a favor … skip the odd game. Model a happy adulthood and cultivate your own interests rather than feed off theirs.”

And, in her most idealistic proposal, Flanagan wishes we could transform collegiate sports altogether – either giving no admissions preferences to student-athletes, or eliminating college sports completely. “Absent the potential for a leg up in college admissions that colleges dangle before young players, the pay-to-play private sports world would serve little purpose … kids who still wanted to play could return to more casual, low-cost options, on town leagues and local teams. Cost barriers that block lower-income families would fall, and more kids could play.”

This sounds extreme, but would it be a bad thing? I’m mystified whenever someone complains that the Minnesota Gophers aren’t doing well enough in football. Surely, the point of our tax dollars going to the University is to properly educate students and further important research?

If the Gophers lost every game for the next 20 years, or did away with the athletics department entirely… but our colleges became famous as the best, most affordable and influential state university system in America, the vast majority of Minnesotans would take that trade.

(In a case of unintended consequences, Flanagan relates how 1972’s Title IX – which banned sexual discrimination at colleges, paving the way for more women to participate in sports — actually led to a decrease in the number of female coaches for women’s college teams; the number went from 90% in 1972 to 43% in 2014. One reason being that as colleges paid more for coaching salaries, more men got the jobs.)

Of course, such a change in how colleges approach athletics seems unthinkable right now. And part of that is due to the very nature of what college is about; granting economic advantage. Ivy League schools don’t want student-athletes because they’re well-rounded individuals. Or even because they’ll help win games. Those colleges want student-athletes because those students are among the most competitive, the most driven. Therefore more likely to make the most money with an Ivy League degree, and more likely to gratefully reward the alumni fund. This is entirely the thought process behind every decision a prestigious college makes.

Yet change isn’t impossible. Flanagan looks at Tuscarora High School in Frederick, MD. Among over 1500 students, most are non-white, one-fifth have disabilities, and a third are eligible for free (or low-cost) lunches. (The athletic director also runs a summer school for homeless children.) At Tuscarora, anyone who wants to play a sport plays it, at some level, such as intramural leagues; the goal is to make physical activity fun for as many kids as possible. And it seems to be working.

Parents with kids who play sports, or who want their kids to discover the fun of sports, should check out Take Back The Game. (It’s available from several Minnestota libraries, here is one.) Flanagan has many good ideas, and good citations to back them up. There’s information about useful resources for kids and parents.

Ultimately, it’s an interesting book because it’s something Flanagan feels so passionately about. At times she’s wanted to quit coaching; at times she’s been inspired by the good sports can do in kids’ lives. As can learning musical instruments or being in school plays… but never let your kids get into the school paper, I WARN YOU!

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