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It’s all fun and games until someone gets cut

October 10th, 2004 · 3 Comments

Ted and I don’t argue often. But we have had a few fiesty discussions about children’s sports.

Neither one of us was a star athlete in school – or later in life – and we’re not intense sports fans either. We follow figure skating on fall weekends. I try to go for a run in the mornings. That’s the extent of our personal pursuits of sport.

But I am passionate about children participating in athletics. Sports was a requirement at my high school and so somehow, with the help of friends, I found the courage to try track the spring of ninth grade.

Academic success came easily to me. Athletics was different and difficult. What I learned about myself in those moments on the track and cross-country courses was precious and painful. I saw other sides of me that weren’t visible in the classroom. I saw who I was when I didn’t do well. It was ugly in moments. It was frustrating. I felt humbled and proud of myself in new ways. I learned I could do incredible things with my body. I learned I had limits. When I look back on those times, I feel regret for the mistakes I made but I also feel grateful for the refining of my character that occurred.

Ted thought wasn’t as competitive an athlete in high school. He’s never been excited about having our kids participate in intense sports. I didn’t understand.

We have enrolled our children in sports to help them grown and learn. Abigail this fall is in a casual soccer program on Saturday mornings. She also goes to dance class once a week. Elisabeth has a gymnastics class that she does with her Daddy on Saturday mornings, a tradition for our family tots. Michaela also would have gymnastics except that her class was too full this fall.

Yesterday morning I woke before seven, and it wasn’t until after noon that we were finished with the sports of the day. It was our turn to take snacks to soccer so that was an unusual amount of work. In fact, the girls and I had washed and bagged the grapes the night before. Still I had to load the cooler and car, wake, dress and feed the kids in time for Elisabeth’s class. After her gymnastics, we headed to the soccer field for Abigail’s game in the rain. When we came home, the girls took baths to warm and clean themselves. I had muddy clothes to sort and wash, as well as leftover snacks, bags and cooler to tidy. The thought that all this work was for one first-grade level recreational soccer scrimmage and a toddler gym class amazed me. What would happen if we had multiple children in multiple sports?! Or fast-forward a few years, when we could have three girls in three soccer teams?

Earlier this week I had read in The Bainbridge Review a columnist, Cathy Nickum, described the pressure on young athletes to compete year-round in the same sport.

Thus Susie will hear in the fourth grade that if she expects to play varsity soccer at the high school, she’d better get on a year-round “select” team by seventh grade.

Cathy Nickum continued to tell the story of her son who got onto a “select” team in fifth grade but was “sick of soccer” by ninth grade and “dropped it altogether”.

Chris O’Donnell linked to Bernie DeKoven who posted an article from the San Jose Mercury News by Ed Clendaniel What’s the goal of kid sports?

The fall youth sports season is in full swing.

Are we having fun yet?

Wasted weekends. Late-night dinners. Anxiety over playing time and performance. As a parent, I accept those necessary evils as part of the process of my three children having fun, staying in shape and learning valuable life lessons.

But I’m having difficulty accepting the growing notion — spawned by the Olympics and fueled by parents trying to give their children an edge — that one of the chief goals of youth sports is to create mini-professionals


Today’s club teams — with the best of intentions — use rec programs as feeder teams to identify the most talented athletes, who then try out for and play on increasingly competitive and elite teams. Some teams play year-round; many travel statewide and nationwide in search of the most competitive games. Sometimes the athletes are as young as 8.

The message couldn’t be clearer: If you want to get to the Olympics — or increasingly just to play your favorite sport in high school — you have to start training single-mindedly when you begin elementary school.

It all sounds foreign to my experience. I started running in high school. And I have a hard time imagining that a good runner would get cut from a track team. Track and even cross-country are not team sports that require years of skills and training for success. If you are fast, you are fast. There’s no debate about it.

But then again, it was a different world when I was in school.

Ed Clendaniel included excellent statistics on the probability of landing a professional sports job – or even an athletic scholarship as well as a personal story of his own daughter’s dilemma.

Chris O’Donnell commented on the lack of pick-up games. I too am concerned. I know I have a limited perspective on what I see during the day. But I don’t see many parents in our neighborhood outside playing a pickup game with their kids. I try to go out and kick the soccer ball around with Abigail at least a couple times a week. With the schedules and demands, who has time for a casual game? Yet I confess too that my own games with Abigail are not pickup but practice, an intentional effort to help her improve.

In a sense I already feel pressure for our daughter to perform on this simple soccer team. Perhaps it is only my parental pride. Yet I feel self-conscious of my kid, aware of how well she is doing on the field. We don’t have any aspirations for athletes in our family. We only want our daughters to learn and have fun. But I wonder how well that can happen in this system or pressure. Is it still fine to have fun? Or do we have to constantly compete?

There are sports outside high school teams. Ballet. Karate. Aikido. Perhaps our girls will do one of those instead. But just as I want my girls to enjoy reading, writing and experimenting for fun, I want them to enjoy sports for fun.

If what is described in these articles is the system, then I don’t want to be a part. I don’t want my girls to have to play in such intensity and pressure. And what is the point and purpose? This week, between what I’ve read and what I’ve experienced, I realized that perhaps I am not so passionate about kids’ athletics any more. I think Ted just might be right. For once. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Tags: family

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jim Thomsen // Oct 11, 2004 at 1:55 pm

    Interesting post, and I respond to it as a former sports editor of The Bainbridge Review and a longtime sportswriter ….

    I believe there is a happy medium to be found, and that it can be found in the careful observations of how much your kids appear to be enjoying what they’re doing on the athletic field. I think neither Ted nor you are all right or all wrong because I’m not sure you’ve carefully considered the middle ground. Not all kids are created equal, and as a result some kids LOVE the intensity and pressure of fast-track ahtletic achievement … and others are in it just for fun, for tasty snacks and for getting time to hang out with friends. The minute it becomes more, they become bored or complaining รขโ‚ฌโ€ and eventually fade out of sports. Which is okay, because there’s no shortage of other rewarding activities out there … especially on Bainbridge Island. Consider the possibility that whether you like it or not, one or more of your daughters may have a stubborn competitive streak in them that needs to be nurtured through sports and other endeavors in which excellence is rewarded and self-esteem is not so carefully protected that you wind up protecting them from a real world they’ll have to be equipped to face sooner or later. They may need the gut-bucket pressure of a win-now mentality to achieve their fullest potential as adults. Don’t be too quick to take that away from them because you fear the tears that will be shed after inevitables losses. But also be quick to act if you perceive that the tears signal something more fragile in a child that might sustain permanent damage from a coach that barks and bellows or from teammates who are unforgiving of game-deciding mistakes. If you know your children, you’ll know the difference.

    There’s a fine line to walk there … and you’ll walk it in the faces and words and gestures of your children. But don’t be quick to apply your parental aesthetic to all of them in blanket form … all that does is ignore their individualities, and, quite possibly, their needs.

    In all my years as a youth athlete on Bainbridge Island, and as sportswriter who has covered everything from U-8 rec soccer to Pee Wee football to high school state championship games, I know that there are young boys and girls among us every day who NEED thousands of people screaming at them from the stands in order to find out who they are, how strong they are and how well they can compete in a world that demands competitive survival. I also know there are young boys and girls who aren’t quite as tough, or quite of desiring of that specific sort of challenge, who choose or need to find their excellence in a less intense environment … and that failure to recognize that can led to psychological wounds that can last decades.

    The worst thing you can do as a parent, I believe, is shield them from circumstances that allow you to discern which type your children are by not even allowing them to compete at all. By placing them only in artificial “you’re-all-winners” atmospheres, you’re depriving them of essential life-coping skills they’ll need much sooner than adulthood.

    My advice, as a veteran watcher of kids and parents: Watch yourself, in a different way … and learn. And be prepared to be surprised by what you learn.

  • 2 Julie // Oct 12, 2004 at 1:33 am

    Thank you, Jim, for your perspective. I appreciate your experience and your passion. I know I learned a lot from sports as a child, and I know I will learn a lot as a parent too. I do want my girls to try athletics and we have had our daughters enrolled in classes since the first one was one year old.

    My main concern is the dance between what may be best for one child and what is best for the entire family. With three kids, I don’t know how we would juggle three intense sport schedules year round and also have time for our family.

    I’m also concerned about the intensity and current culture in children’s sports. Why do kids and parents need to plan for 10th grade sports while in 5th grade? Is there still flexibility and freedom for kids to try new activities in their teens? These were issues raised by the Review and Mercury News articles.

    I do want to consider what is best for each child and help guide her to grow in her strengths and weaknesses, whether that involves competitive sports or not.

    I want to be open to learning and growing as a parent, blogger and person. Thanks for sharing your concerns for our family.

  • 3 Jim Thomsen // Oct 12, 2004 at 1:00 pm

    You’re right about how “pre-planning” a child’s athletic career can get conpletely out of control. I just read a funny book about how upscale women in New York goes to hysterical influence-peddling lengths to get their child into the ‘right” tony private school at age 5 because the system is apparently set up in such a way that if you don’t “start your child off right,” they’ll never get into the right prep school, and therefore never get into an Ivy League school, and therefore be condemned to a lifetime of stocking shelves on the night shift at Wal-Mart, or something. There’s probably an equally funny novel to be written about the parental hysteria over kids’ sports and the pursuit of college athletic scholarships … maybe you’ll even be the one to write it.

    Again, I think let your child be an indicator of how intense it should get in your family. If you’re capable of perceiving, for instance, that one of your children is an exceptionally talented soccer player and loves the sport so much that she sleeps with a ball under her pillow and practices dribbling footwork in her PJs on the way to the breakfast table, then why not sit her down and spell out what a long-term, year-round commitment means, and try to best discren from her words and reactions whether or not she’s ready to climb aboard that train … let alone you and your husband and your other children. And if it doesn’t work out … you can always hop off the train and resume your normal lives.

    I think parents are sometimes just like kids, in that some are so worried about what other parents do with THEIR kids that they feel like lesser parents by comparison for not spending $10,000 a year on sports gear and travel and camps, etc. and let themselves get caught up in this nutty downward spiral of comparative parenting. I’ve personally witnessed this before on Bainbridge. It’s the whole keeping with up the Jones thing, and is not substantially different than, “Mom, I need you to spend $200 on them clothes because all the other kids have them.”

    You’re fine as long as you recognize the insanity of competitive parenting for what it is and resolve not to play that game … so that it doesn’t interfere with the games that your children LOVE to play.

    I’m sure this isn’t a news flash … but it can be a very fine line sometimes between being a kid and a grown-up. We all have ways of manifesting childlike jealousies, envies, tensions and conflicts into our adult lives. What distinguishes us is our ability to step back and see what’s going on for what it is.

    Do what’s right for you, too. Year-round select soccer, for example, asks every bit as much of a commitment from a parent as it odes from a child. If you and your husband really don’t want to commit every weekend to hauling the family around in a minivan from Medford to Tri-Cities to Missoula to Bellingham, going through fast-food drive-thrus entirely too often and making your other kids feel like matching pieces of luggage, by all means apply the brakes for your own good as well. Rec-league soccer closer to home, and school leagues are just fine.

    Keep us all posted on your family sporting exploits.