How youth sports became a feast or famine world — and what parents can do about it

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Teenage boy holding up trophy
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There’s a story that didn’t make it into Linda Flanagan’s book, but it’s so appalling she has to tell me about it. It’s about a family in her town whose son was on the “A” team at the local soccer club one year but placed on the “B” team the next. He was humiliated; his parents were livid. So livid that the father, who worked in a higher position at the same firm as the coach, had the coach transferred overseas.

It sounds outlandish enough to be fiction, and yet for those familiar with the excesses of youth sports today, it may not be surprising. Flanagan’s book, “Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania are Ruining Kids’ Sports — and Why It Matters,” is filled with anecdotes and statistics about the state of youth sports and how it got this way. She covers not just the misbehaviors but also the more mundane way sports can skew families’ priorities. And she doesn’t spare herself from the critique. She cringes, for example, over memories of times when she noticed her own ego swelling from her son Paul’s basketball success. And she laments time and money wasted on camps and tournaments that Paul himself didn’t care about.

“I couldn’t figure out why Paul’s athleticism seemed to matter so much to me, and why kids’ sports animated everyone in my orbit. But I felt that pull from his earliest days,” writes Flanagan. “While no one was looking, when we grown-ups were busy building our own lives and tending our own families, kids’ sports took a turn. These shifts became apparent to me while watching my son play, and became unavoidable the longer I coached.”

Flanagan said there are three broad sociological developments since the 1970s that led to this situation. First is money. As public investment in community recreation programs declined, commercial ventures filled in the void — and then some. Thanks to elite clubs, private trainers, state-of-the-art tournament facilities and all the companies selling the latest gear, youth sports is now a multibillion-dollar, “fabulously profitable industry,” as Flanagan put it.

Then there are broader changes in American cultural views about childhood and increasing trends toward individualism. Both have placed mounting pressure on parents to fixate on their children and on preparing them for a competitive adult world. Third, as admission to elite colleges and universities have become more competitive, families have looked to sports for an entry point.

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These trends haven’t just harmed the kids of middle- and upper-class families who dominate the high-stakes world of contemporary youth sports. They’ve also made athletic opportunities increasingly out of reach for kids from low-income families. “It's what I would call a feast or famine,” Flanagan said. For parents seeking a more steady diet, she advised letting children’s interests lead, keeping the family whole, putting sports in perspective and modeling the behavior you want your children to learn.

Look at your child

Many parents now see their kids’ athletic achievements as a reflection on themselves. How can you tell if you’re in that camp? Pay attention to how you feel about the outcome of the game, Flanagan said. It’s not bad to feel proud of your child’s performance, but there’s a limit. Even more indicative is when a loss or poor performance puts a parent in a bad mood.

To shift the focus back to kids, Flanagan said, “Let them take the lead. They should be the ones deciding what to play, when to play, if to play an organized sport.” She acknowledged that when given a blank canvas, many kids may choose screen time, which doesn’t yield the physical or mental benefits of sports. In that scenario, parents can nudge with suggestions, but she recommended giving a lot of options if possible, not just pushing them toward one specific sport.

Once they’re on the team, observe and listen to their experiences. Even if they’re naturally gifted in a sport, they might not actually enjoy it for one reason or another. Create offramps — opportunities for them to keep deciding whether they’re into a sport as they age. 

Keep your family whole

In addition to money, the time and relationship sacrifices some families make for a young athlete’s sport can be tremendous. Two basic measures parents can take to avoid fragmenting their families in the process is to start organized sports later and to stay in local leagues as long as possible.

Beyond that, Flanagan recommends occasionally saying no to a coach’s request or a club expectation. Groupthink can make that hard, but sometimes speaking up can give other parents permission to set boundaries, too. In her book, Flanagan gives an example she heard from the mom of a soccer player. When the first opponent in an upcoming soccer tournament forfeited, the coach scheduled a replacement exhibition match. Families would have to drive more than an hour early in the morning and wait hours there until the next game. Other parents confirmed that they’d be there — until this mom replied that maybe playing only one game was enough. Soon after, other parents agreed and the exhibition was canceled.

“Parents have a perception that they don't have any power here,” Flanagan said. “And I'm like, no, you guys are writing the checks. You work together to set the terms.”

Keep youth sports in perspective

Don’t be confused. Flanagan loves and values sports. She played softball as a teenager, she encouraged her kids’ athletic interests and she coached girls running teams for 17 years. She knows about the health benefits of physical activity and the satisfaction that comes from training hard. She also knows not to sweat the small stuff. “It seems so important. Many things do with raising kids. But it really doesn't matter very much whether they make varsity or become captain. They're going to be who they are,” she said.

To keep that perspective, Flanagan recommended befriending older parents, not attending every game and developing your own interests separate from children. That last item was particularly important for teaching her kids to respect her as a full human being, she said.

Model the behavior you want your child to learn

Having her own interests also helped model a “rich and satisfying adulthood” to her kids. When parents don’t do that, Flanagan said it sends a message that children should avoid growing up “because it's really no fun.”

Other behaviors to model include treating coaches with respect and thanking them for their commitment. (Though not to the exclusion of watching for signs of abuse.) Coping with disappointments is another one. When parents’ react to something like making the B team as a crisis, it signals to their child to feel grievously wounded. “They take their cues from the parents,” Flanagan said. Instead, parents can “ratchet down the language” and help kids recognize these moments as part of life’s ups and downs. 

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For parents who want to make bigger changes, Flanagan suggested joining leadership in sports leagues. She said that while coaching she worked with many great families with values in the right place. They’re out there. But their voices may need to get louder to be heard.