Building "Elite" Athletes: Are Club Sports the Way to Go?

The Washington Post ran an article recently with the title, “Are Parents Ruining Youth Sports?” Like most heavily populated suburban areas, the D.C. Metro region is lousy with “elite” club and travel teams. Therefore, this is an eye-opening article and, really, is a must-read for parents.

The main take-aways for me were:

  • The number of kids playing team sports has declined in the past 6 years; bad news bears for the fight against childhood obesity. (Not to mention these kids miss out on all the other benefits of playing team sports like learning teamwork, cohesion, how to win and lose gracefully…)
  • The decline is partly due to the recession in the poorer areas, but in the populous suburbs (like NOVA) experts think it’s the shift to elite competition. This set up caters to the “most talented” kids while leaving the rest of us (I include myself in this category) in the recreational leagues. The rec leagues have a) less money b) less talented coaching and c) poor facilities. This seems to contribute to the stat of 70% of kids quitting sports by age 13.
  • The machine that is club/travel sports is a 7 billion dollar industry-- good luck changing that. Making money is a powerful incentive.
  • Amanda Visek, and exercise physiology professor at George Washington University performed a survey with 150 kids about the things they enjoyed about playing sports and they came up with 81 answers: number 48 was winning; even lower were things like cool uniforms, traveling, and the like. Soooo, it’s not super important to our youths.

Who is to blame?

Clearly, this is a problem and the article points the finger at the parents. I’m sorry to say, but I am inclined to agree. I see a lot of kids throughout the year and honestly, a lot of them are less-than-enthusiastic about their year-round sport. To quote:

“In the past two decades, sports has become an investment to many parents, one that they believe could lead to a college scholarship, even though the odds are bleak. Parents now start their kids in sports as toddlers, jockey to get them on elite travel teams, and spend small fortunes on private coaching, expensive equipment, swag and travel to tournaments.
Youth sports is the new keeping up with the Joneses…’Honestly I think there are many parents who like it,” adding, “in their own mind they are thrilled at their son being an ‘elite’ athlete.’
This is how youth sports looks now: The most talented kids play on travel teams beginning at age 7 (or sometimes younger), even though many athletes bloom much later; the best coaches (often dads who are former college athletes) manage travel teams, leaving rec leagues with helpful but less knowledgeable parents in charge; and coaches of elite teams pressure kids to play only one sport (the one they are coaching), even though studies show this leads to injuries, burnout and athletes who aren’t well rounded.”

I whole-heartedly agree and I’ve stated, clearly, my opinions on year-round early sport specialization before and it is NONSENSE. The definition of “excellence” as provided by our current youth sports culture is detrimental to both a child’s emotional and physical health. As a strength coach, I see some messed up “elite” athletes. I see “elite” kids who can’t even step of a 4 inch box and land without their knees caving in and crumpling like rag doll. I see “elite” kids who can’t squat to save their lives and their spines are as stiff as Gumby’s. (These are all really, really bad things.)

It’s sad for me to hear that hundreds of kids are shoved to the side and pushed into poorly-funded recreational leagues-- I was one of those kids. I wasn’t the best, or even that skilled, but thankfully I grew up away from the increasingly widespread mentality of club sports. I certainly wouldn’t have stuck around in the sports I played in middle school and high school because I would have been ignored in favor of the “better” kids. When I moved to northern Virginia my senior year of highschool, it was a major culture shock. The competition was fierce amongst athletes and parents took it waaaaaay too seriously-- to the point where I didn’t even bother to try out for my high school soccer team (even though I’d played for years up to that point). I played on a volleyball team with girls who only played volleyball and had done so since they were 10. That blew my mind.

There is hope on the horizon! The Aspen Institute is working towards increasing funding for recreational leagues, training coaches, encouraging a multi-sport culture, among other things. I was encouraged to hear that the MLB has partnered with the Positive Coaching Alliance to train youth coaches-- that’s awesome!

Why am I writing about this again?

We need to continue to highlight this issue for the sake of our kids; and not stop at just talking and ranting about it. We need to change the way we approach youth sports. Parents: your kid will probably NOT be a professional athlete or even get a scholarship. Sorry, the odds are against him/her. But that doesn’t mean they can’t have many years of rich, enjoyable, and fun experiences playing sports (which will, hopefully, carry on into adulthood and eventually pass on to their kids). We need to stand up for our kids and put their well-being ahead of our own selfish desires for them.

Three things you can do RIGHT NOW:

  1. Allow your kid to play more than one (heck, more than two!) sports.

  2. Give your kid an off-season, for the love of everything athletic, give your kid a few months off!

  3. Ask your kid what he/she wants to do.

“Hopefully, these ideas can help change things,” Farrey said. “You’re not going to change the culture by telling parents to stop acting like fools.”