The Insanity of Youth Sports

Friday Night LightsI am not really sure where to begin. Friday Night Lights is soul stirring, heartbreaking, discouraging and amazing read. It reaffirmed my opinion of high school athletics –they are, in the wrong hands, susceptible to becoming vehicles for immature, child-like coaches and parents with repressed fantasies of athletic glory.  Some misguided adults may use their children to pursue their own personal ambitions. Fifteen-year old kids become fodder in the high school football machine.

Having played football in high school, I learned this lesson early on. Though the coaches talked of “building character” and “learning life-lessons” from the game – the true objective was “win or I will get fired!” – OR – “win, because I need a good record to build my resume so I can get a better job and move out of this crap-hole and onto a better school!” It is not about the kids. It is often about the ambitions and ego of the coaches and the vanity of parents who are able to live vicariously through the exploits of their children during their few years of glory.

What is amazing is how absolutely ridiculous this sports obsession has become. Though it was driven by ego and vanity when I played 20+ years ago – it was limited in many ways. We didn’t give the sport a thought until two-a-days began in August, then we moved onto other things when the season ended. The model revealed in Friday Nights Lights – of a year-round football meat-grinder – building, using and discarding young players – was, I thought, isolated to football-obsessed Texas. Then I saw Hoop Dreams and realized that this madness surrounding a sport existed in basketball as well.

But it has now spread – everywhere and to all sports. No one plays for fun anymore. All sports have been “professionalized” and “specialized” beginning around the age of 8 or 9. Today, kids have private coaches and trainers; they play on club teams that require 5 or 6 practices weekly plus extensive travel for games and tournaments. Games are attended by ALL parents – who passionately hang onto the outcome of every game – assessing, critiquing and correcting in an effort to make their kid a “great” player. Coaches and referees/umpires are walking targets for parental vitriol if their child fails at their expense. This is high-stakes. It is a full-time job of at-least one parent – and a significant investment – just to play sports. Just go to a Little League Baseball game – look at the equipment bags that 10 years olds have – several bats, several gloves, their own helmet. Not just one kid – every kid. Why is this?

Can you say CRAZY!

Every year the bar gets raised a little higher. One player will add a new coaching method, or personal trainer, or dietician to their program – then everyone else feels compelled to do the same – or (God forbid) they may fall behind, not make the team  – ending the delusions of grandeur held by their parents. It’s Little League meets keeping up with the Joneses – MADNESS!

Sadly, the madness has spread worldwide. From youth soccer in Europe – where promising players are taken from their parents and put into training camps at young ages (How a Soccer Star is Made) to develop their full-potential as a player – which is a dream come true for many parents. Same in tennis and gymnastics – and I am sure many others.

Friday Night Lights is a book we should all read – or re-read – paying special attention to the hearts and minds of the players and the wounds they endured by placing so much dedicated effort into a single purpose (that ultimately benefited others) at such a young age. This mad pursuit sucks all of the fun from what is supposed to be a game. If youth sports is a business – lets call it one and stop portraying it as an outlet for character building – lets pay the kids to play and stop pretending we care about anything other than winning. Or, better yet, lets regain our perspective; remember that these are games, designed for recreation and fun, and return to a simpler design for leagues and play. Lets focus on using athletics to truly build the leadership and character qualities that, when coached and played properly, can emerge from the experience. There are many coaches in this country, at all levels, who are doing this – let them emerge and dominate – like Coach Wooden back in the day – and show us all the qualities that produce true and lasting success. Wishful thinking?

P.S. The television series Friday Night Lights was superb! They were able to delve into the complexity of each characters situation – the need to earn a scholarship as the only means to college, the pressure of boosters and administration on a coach to deliver “status & prestige” to the district and the struggles that emerge for all involved. Well worth a look.

Be Strong. Stay Hungry. Walk Tall.

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