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Are We Having Fun Yet?

Kids today are starting sports younger and training harder. But is the "more is better" attitude helping or hurting them?



IT’S SPRING, AND all over the county kids are waking up early and eating a good breakfast, and parents are filling up the gas tanks to drive across town, to cheer on their offspring as they play their little hearts out. Thousands of kids are breaking in their new cleats, softening their new baseball gloves or tightening a new super-aerodynamic pair of swim goggles. Oh, the joys of being a kid in Marin County. Most of these young athletes compete in what is often called a “rec” league, meaning the games are usually parents in their own town, teammates are often classmates and coaches are volunteer parents.

However, there is another group of Marin young people, also waking up and eating a good breakfast and preparing for a game, which on any given day could be in Sacramento, Concord or even Reno. These kids might have a particular talent or an early aptitude because they have been introduced to the sport by a sibling or by parents motivated to provide their kid the learning experience of being on a more competitive team. These children, often identified as early as 7 years old, are being steered to play for competitive travel teams that carry prestigious labels like Select, Club and Elite.

“I played a lot of sports growing up,” says Raul Saavedra of Tiburon. “Back then, it was about having fun, hanging out with your friends, forming a bond with your buddies.” Now, Saavedra says, he is “flirting with the idea” of letting his 10-year-old son play travel baseball. But it’s a tough decision. “The kids are hard core,” he says. “They play all year round. There is no b.s.”

The other option is for his son to stay with the Tiburon Little League and play with his fellow fifth-graders from Bel Aire School, an arrangement in which he could walk to practice and that would cost considerably less than a travel team.

For families like the Saavedras, the travel sports option means choosing a team to play for, getting the kid to tryouts, paying team fees of $3,000 or more, and spending an additional $1,000 or more on travel, gas, food and lodging for at least five weekends (in many cases they can expect to share the cost for the coach’s lodging too). The other games on the schedule, luckily, are close enough to not require an overnight stay.

The costs are not just monetary. Players invest extensive amounts of training in their sport, even during the off-season. Parents are expected to chauffeur kids to tournaments and raise money to offset travel-related expenses. Younger siblings get dragged along to watch. It becomes a family affair.

Chris Elders of Tiburon, founder of Can Do Kid, a company that sells energy bars with a message of positive self-esteem, is the mother of two boys who play competitive soccer and lacrosse. Elders feels that raising the bar on competition is “a must” for some kids, but she warns of the downsides.

“If your child shows true talent (because folks other than yourself have pointed that out) and you think he may need to take the next step into a more competitive world, then choose wisely,” she says. “Think about costs, logistics in getting to practices and games, change of lifestyle and balance. Parents and coaches sometimes think more is better and paying thousands of dollars by adding teams or playing the sport year-round or getting private coaching is the right strategy. It can actually do more damage than good.

“Both of my boys’ first competitive soccer coach pushed them very hard — uncomfortably for us at times,” Elders adds, “but they would not be who they are in their sports today if they weren’t given the tools that he gave them. Finding the right team and a good coach is key.”

The Rise of Competitive Youth Sports

“There is a lot of pressure on kids in Marin to succeed, whether they are on the chess team or drama club or writing for the school newspaper or playing sports.”
Bruce Cohen, Marin father and coach

GONE ARE THE days when kids’ sports simply meant playing catch in the backyard or kicking a ball around the local soccer field. Today, youth sports in the United States is big business, with an estimated 30 to 45 million kids participating and $7 billion being spent on equipment, instruction, coaching, field rentals and travel.

Along with these big numbers come big expectations. The more parents spend, the more they expect a return on their investment — putting greater pressure on their kids, their kids’ coaches and the travel teams they are financing.

Hilary Levey Friedman, Harvard sociologist and author of the book Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, traces today’s culture of hypercompetitive youth sports back to the 1960s, when college admissions became more cutthroat with increasing numbers of boomer applicants. Parents saw sports as a way to set their kids apart in the application process.

This sentiment continues today.

“One of parents’ main concerns is their children’s access to high-quality educational credentials,” Friedman observes. “Competitive activities, like sports and the arts, are seen as the essential proving ground that will clear their children’s paths to the Ivy League."

Moreover, parents see sports as a microcosm for what Friedman calls the “tournament of life.” On the field, they assume kids will learn the skills they need to become tomorrow’s leaders.

In Marin County, where many parents are leaders in their own right, it’s not surprising that Mom and Dad might hope their children will follow in their footsteps.

According to Bruce Cohen, a Corte Madera father of three boys who play competitive baseball, basketball and soccer, youth sports feeds upon parents’ own pride and fear — “the pride of our kids excelling and the fear of them falling behind.

“We live in a very successful community,” says Cohen. “There are a lot of former high school varsity players and even some college athletes. The competition to get into [certain] high schools and college is tough. Parents are looking for ways to differentiate their kids.”

Cohen says he’s heard parents saying that they are switching their kids from football to lacrosse, or from volleyball to another sport, because there are more scholarships available.

Parents with dreams of college scholarships may want to take a closer look at the numbers. According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, only 2 percent of high school athletes will be awarded an athletic scholarship, and that’s for a partial scholarship. Full rides are even harder to get. Just 3 to 6 percent of high school basketball, football, baseball and soccer players will even make it onto a college team.

Compare this to the stats on academic scholarships — the money that schools give to kids who get good grades. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 59 percent of the 23 million undergraduate students in the United States receive some form of grant or merit-based scholarship.

For the few high school athletes who do receive scholarships, the pressure placed on them during their college years can be intense. Long practice hours, missed classes and life on a different schedule from most of their classmates can take a toll. Not to mention the physical strain of the sport itself.

Take, for example, Marin Catholic star lineman Gunner Graham who was recruited with a scholarship in 2012 to play football for Colorado University, but decided to give up the sport last year. “College football is a huge commitment all the way around,” says Colorado football coach Mike MacIntyre. “I don’t know; I think sometimes kids don’t realize how huge a commitment it is.”

Bottom line? For parents with dreams of a college scholarship, academic scholarships are much more plentiful than athletic ones, so it might be a better strategy to have your kids hit the books, not the ball.

Good Intentions Gone Bad

“Seventy percent of kids drop out of sports by middle school because they are not having fun. We need to balance the work with the fun.”
Rob Miller, Proactive Coaching, LLC

PARENTS’ INTENTIONS START out good. They want their kids to have a happy and fulfilling childhood, to improve in sports and to feel good about themselves.

There are social, academic, cognitive and psychological benefits to playing team sports. Kids learn invaluable life skills, such as how to communicate with teammates, how to cope with the disappointment of losing and how to respect opponents.

According to Whitney Hanley, who coached both the varsity field hockey and varsity girls’ lacrosse teams at Marin Catholic for years, “playing on a team teaches kids the importance of commitment, good sportsmanship and respect for others — your teammates, coaches and referees. I tell the girls that there are no individuals out there. Everybody is equally valuable.”

Problems arise when the focus shifts more to achievement and winning and away from learning valuable life skills. “Sometimes I walk by a soccer or lacrosse field and I can hear parents yelling at the refs or at their kids, and they are playing on a U9 or U11 team,” says Tiburon’s Elders. “Take deep breaths, parents — you have a long way to go.”

Jennifer Weiksner of Belvedere says she was “shocked” and “disappointed” when her 10-year-old son’s Little League coach, a local father, recommended that her son quit the team — and baseball altogether — because he wasn’t able to keep up with his teammates, many of whom had several years of travel ball experience under their little belts.

In an email to Weiksner, the coach wrote, “As a father, doctor and coach, my recommendation is that (your son) not play baseball. This sport will not give him self-confidence or elevate his self-esteem. Worse, I imagine he will feel worse about himself as the season progresses.”

The email continued, “Most kids on the team have played more than three years of baseball. Some have played five or more years and travel baseball. (Your son) hasn’t had that luxury. His skills are like a second-grader’s. Unfortunately, he’s playing with kids throwing like fifthgraders. I just don’t want him to go down the path that makes him feel like a loser.”

In Weiksner’s view, the coach did not have her son’s best interests in mind. Rather, he was trying to “bully” him to quit in order to strengthen his team.

“He didn’t suggest that my son get additional coaching, or even that he consider dropping down a division,” she notes. “Instead, he recommended that he quit baseball entirely — at age 10.”

Unfortunately, stories like these are becoming common. “I could write a sitcom about it,” says Cohen with a laugh. “You see it all over — in Stockton, Fresno and New York City. It’s not just crazy Marin parents.”

When to Go Competitive

“Youngsters should be discouraged from specializing in a single sport before puberty to avoid physical and psychological damage.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics

IF YOUR CHILD does show talent in a given sport, the question becomes when to start him or her playing for a competitive travel team. This is a topic of great debate among parents, coaches and sports experts.

On the one hand, there is the theory that exposing young athletes to more rigorous training and competition will increase their chances of success. Others argue that the high-pressure, year-round focus that most competitive teams require leads to injury, burnout and even dropping out. It may have worked for Tiger Woods and Serena and Venus Williams and Marin’s Jonny Moseley, but will it work for your child?

Most experts, including sports psychologist and author Jon Hellstedt, recommend that kids not “specialize” in a sport until puberty. Up until that point kids’ bodies are changing and their skills and strengths are still developing.

Just because a child isn’t a fast runner or well coordinated at age 8 does not mean that she will be slow and uncoordinated at age 15, says Hellstedt in his book On the Sidelines: Decisions, Skills, and Training in Youth Sports: How to Help Your Child Grow Through Sports. The slow starter can be a late winner.

Hellstedt recommends that kids between ages 6 and 12 “sample” a variety of sports, with the focus on having fun and learning the fundamentals of the game. A coach’s job at this stage is to provide an atmosphere of encouragement and to avoid “over-coaching” and punishing mistakes.

Thomas Mattimore, one of five kids in a Tiburon family known for athletics and academic achievement, went to St. Ignatius High School and was recruited by Dartmouth College to play lacrosse. He agrees with the “sampling” theory.

“As a kid, I played every sport I could — baseball, soccer, football, lacrosse, basketball and swim team,” he says. “I didn’t play on a travel team until high school. I don’t think it’s healthy to do one sport year-round. Changing sports each season helps keep everything fresh so you don’t burn out.”

Mattimore feels kids today are getting too much pressure to specialize early in sports. He “committed” to playing lacrosse for Dartmouth after his junior year in high school, but these days kids are committing much earlier.

“Kids develop differently,” says Mattimore. “I got better at lacrosse at the end of high school. It would have hurt me if I had committed any earlier than I did. Kids are committing early, then burning out and losing their commitment. It’s crazy.”

Parents want their kids to get the “golden ticket” into the best college, says Mattimore, and end up paying for travel teams and recruiting coaches who he would say are “ripping them off.”

His advice? “Parents should let their kids do it on their own and stop being helicopter parents. Colleges will find the talent.”

Beyond the Last Whistle

“We’ve sacrificed a lot in order for them (my two sons) to have the opportunities that they’ve had, but we wouldn't change a thing.”
Chris Elders, Marin mother

STILL, MANY PARENTS remain convinced that the longterm benefits make sports worth taking seriously. Billy Mattimore, Thomas’s brother, who grew up in Tiburon and played lacrosse for Bucknell University, says the skills he learned playing sports have helped him in his career. “I work in a competitive sales environment,” he notes. “The work ethic that I learned on the field has helped me in my job. I have also benefited from the great coaching I had from a young age. My coaches were great, solid people who were committed to my growth as a person, not just as an athlete. It was a really powerful thing for me at a young age.”

Bruce Cohen adds, “We’ve met wonderful families, and our kids have learned so much and made so many friends. Playing on travel teams has provided my boys with maturity and experience. They have developed composure, poise and leadership skills. I tell my boys, ‘If you don’t like it, if you’re not having fun, you can stop.’ ” So far, that hasn’t happened.

Chris Elders agrees. “There is a discipline involved in being a good athlete and it carries over to the kids’ academics and in the way they view who they want to be in the world. We’ve sacrificed a lot in order for them (my two sons) to have the opportunities that they’ve had, but we wouldn't change a thing.”

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