Tony Tramelli, M.A., L.P.C.

The culture of youth sports in America has changed dramatically over the past decade. Not too long ago, youth sports were, for the most part, community-based organizations which did their best to give every child the opportunity to be part of a team, to get some much-needed physical activity, and to learn the many valuable skills that come with competition. In the past ten years or so, we have seen youth sports move away from this model and develop into a $17 billion industry, which makes it larger than the business of professional baseball and the same size as the NFL.

This financial boom has occurred not with an increase in participation but with a significant decrease in children’s participation rates in sports. Going back to 2008, regular participation in youth sports is down in almost every category. One might think that the decline in youth sports is a result of the sedentary, technology-dominated lives of young people. Children are certainly prioritizing screens over play, but this is not the primary driver for the decrease in participation. To explain this phenomenon, we have to look at income inequality.

Among wealthier families, youth participation is rising, and among the poorest households it is trending significantly downward. According to a report from TD Ameritrade, most American families whose children are involved in sports spend about $500 a month for each child to play, about twenty percent spend $1000, and roughly ten percent spend upwards of $2000 per month. These costs have made it impossible for millions of children to participate in sports. To be sure, there are also many cases in which financially struggling families either go into debt or make other financial sacrifices with the dream of their investment paying off down the road in the form of college scholarships or even professional careers. The fact is, however, that youth sports are a seriously flawed investment. Only two percent of high school athletes are awarded financial scholarships and only two percent of college athletes go on to professional careers.

Even with these dire statistics, we have seen an explosion of the pay-to-play travel team model of youth sports. Expensive travel leagues take talented young athletes from well-off families, leaving behind traditional, local leagues with fewer players, fewer involved parents, and fewer resources. When kids move from community teams to elite travel teams, it sends the message to the kids that didn’t make the team, or whose family couldn’t afford it, that they don’t have a place in sports. The American system of youth sports, serving only a select few at the expense of so many, has destroyed an institution which once prided itself on the values of participation, teamwork, character development, and physical exercise. Youth sports has become, like so many institutions in this country, a business.

The lack of access to youth sports for so many kids is only one of many consequences of this culture around sports. We also must look at how this culture is affecting the athletes and families who do have the resources to be part of these teams. Because parents are investing so much financially, with the rare chance of a future payout, naturally more pressure is put on the athlete to perform. Kids are experiencing a tremendous amount of pressure and expectations from parents, coaches, and peers alike. At the heart of this pressure is a fear of failure; if the child doesn’t perform well, they fear that something bad will happen to them (even if this is objectively untrue). Based on research of thousands of young athletes participating in elite sports, the most common causes of fear include:

  • Disappointing their parents
  • Being rejected by peers
  • The end of their sports dreams
  • That it will all have been a waste of time
  • Failure in sports means the child him/herself is a failure

These beliefs produce:

  • Negativity, worry, and doubt
  • Fear, anxiety, and stress
  • Muscle tension, increased heart rate, and adrenaline pumps
  • Self-sabotage and avoidance behaviors

These beliefs and fears are why so many children are dropping out of sports by their early teens. About seventy percent of kids are giving up organized sports by the time they reach high school.

Kids are also experiencing pressure to play a certain sport, and even a certain position, within the sport based on the probability that it will land them a college scholarship. More and more, kids are becoming single sport athletes, playing their select sport all year around, which leads to physical deterioration and burn out. The irony in this is that most college recruiters are looking for athletes who play multiple sports throughout the year. Some kids are even being told to ignore defense in favor of scoring because it is easier to get recognized that way.

With all of this pressure being put on children, one would think that success at a young age is a valid predictor of future success, but this simply is not the case. Unless a child is one of the rarest prodigies in their sport, results at a young age do not predict later success. What matters in youth sports in regard to future success in sports are not the results, but rather the passion and willingness to work hard to improve one’s skills, developing the resiliency necessary to manage loss and failure and to develop physically and technically.

We also see family systems affected due to the current culture of youth sports. For many families, life revolves around the team; practices, games, private coaching, out of town tournaments, fundraisers, etc., take the bulk of the family’s time. The extent to which and how families are affected by this of course depends on the family, but for many no time is left for anything but the sport. This leaves families without opportunities for family dinners, vacations, downtime, and social lives outside of the team. In many families, resources or talent allows only for specific children to participate in sports, leaving the other child or children to feel left out and less than.

Youth sports can be an incredible learning opportunity for young people. It could and should be a powerful and healthy developmental opportunity. In a healthy sport culture, children develop resiliency, commitment, teamwork, sportsmanship, and have an opportunity to get some much-needed physical activity. We, as parents of young athletes, need to do a better job of encouraging this type of culture. We do this by changing our family’s culture around sports. We do it by reminding ourselves why we have our kids in sports in the first place and by removing our focus from the results and putting it on the effort that our kids display. We do it by making sure that all children have the opportunity to participate, no matter what their skill level or family’s financial situation may be.

Tony Tramelli, LPC received his Master’s in Counseling from Webster University with a focus in mental health counseling. Tony works with individuals, couples, and families on a number of issues. These include depression, anxiety, grief, behavioral issues, academic problems and issues surrounding marital concerns, divorce and family transition. In addition, Tony provides therapy for individuals, couples, and families struggling with issues around technology, including gaming addiction and internet pornography addiction. He also provides presentations and seminars to schools on technology related topics.

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