Monday, October 5, 2015

Youth Sports and the Disappearance of Childhood

I was reading an article in the Washington Post yesterday, and it really bothered me.  No, it wasn't about politics, or religion, or the other hot button issues I sometimes blog about. It was about kids and sports.  I have many memories of watching schoolboy sports, as well as watching the kids in my neighborhood assemble their own teams for pick-up games.  It seemed like no matter what time of year, some sport was being played at some local field somewhere; and those of us who couldn't play were the loyal spectators, cheering for our team. 

But according to the article I read, that isn't happening as much any more:  in fact, participation in youth sports has been declining.  These days, fewer kids are playing baseball, basketball, soccer... they're not even getting together for a game of touch football.  No, it's not because kids prefer to be glued to their devices (although that certainly may be a factor for some).  Mainly, it's because youth sports are no longer about having fun.  They're about hard work and high expectations, the result of too many parents making too many demands. The focus of youth sports has changed:  what used to be a good way for kids to get some fresh air and exercise is now treated like a high-stakes athletic competition, even at the youngest levels. There is so much pressure on kids to be the next big star or to win the next big game that many are just giving up and walking away.

According to the article (which you can read here, too many parents are ignoring the emotional and physical needs of young athletes.  These parents forget that youth sports are played by kids, not grown-ups; the players are still young, still maturing, still learning, and they probably won't play the game perfectly.  But then, not that long ago, nobody expected perfection, and if a kid made a bad play, it was disappointing, but it wasn't the end of the world. 

These days, however, if you attend any youth sporting events, you may notice a disturbing trend:  some parents in the stands are shouting at their kids or criticizing them as they play (or worse yet, screaming at the officials).  Every dropped pass or strike-out is treated like a personal affront, rather than something that happens even to the professionals.  And rather than letting their kids just be kids and learn at their own rate of speed, some parents expect their sons and daughters to practice for hours; parents who can afford it are even hiring private coaches for their kids, and treating each game as if it's an audition for an athletic scholarship.  (These are the moms and dads who claim to be doing what is best for their kid-- whether their kid wants to play pro ball or not.  But in reality, they may be hoping their kid vicariously achieves the athletic success they never had.)

Back in 1982, Neil Postman wrote a book called The Disappearance of Childhood, in which he discussed how attitudes about children have changed over the centuries.  He noted a time when kids were shielded from some of the harsh realities of adult life, when children were allowed to be innocent and to act like kids, when they were not expected to act like miniature adults nor grow up too fast. I would be the last person to claim that we'd all be better off going back some mythic "good old days," but I do wish we could go back to a time when kids played sports for fun, and parents let them do it.  I cringe when I see a parent yelling at a kid who made an error, and I hate it when parents call the referee rude names-- how does this teach kids good sportsmanship?  Postman noted in his book that even in the 1970s and 1980s, parents were turning youth sports into adult sports, professionalizing and pressurizing them, as if every game was the Super Bowl; and since then, it's only gotten worse.  I am not sure who benefits from doing that, but I do know what the cost has been... and it's the kids who are paying for it.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Donna, great post. I'm not defending this behavior, I just thought this idea was interesting. Colin Cowherd talks about this problem on his show very often: he says there is a direct relationship between college costs and youth sports. Today, people are expected to have a degree to be successful, but most parents can't afford to send multiple kids to college. Colin points out that parents push their young athletes (e.g. pitchers throwing all year instead of just spring, angry little league parents, private lessons) so that they might get a full ride athletic scholarship to a University. Free education at the cost of their childhood, I guess. I always think it's an interesting idea. See ya!