For many kids, organized sports aren’t much fun anymore. Overbearing parents, over-the-top coaches and overzealous competition are frequent images associated with youth-athletic leagues today. Though playing ball often used to embody the enjoyment of being a kid, the experience for many youngsters is too serious and stressful – and ultimately not worth it.
One study revealed 70 percent of U.S. children drop out of organized sports by age 13, with pressure and burnout among the main reasons cited.
“The politics, as well as the over-emphasis adults put on kids to see a college scholarship as the ultimate goal, is ruining a kid’s ability to get the most out of sports,” said Maya Castro, author of “The Bubble: Everything I Learned as a Target of the Political, and Often Corrupt, World of Youth Sports” (www.thebubbleweb.com). “This over-emphasis has created an environment amongst the parents and coaches that is similar to a mafia. We badly need changes in this toxic, political and corrupt environment. And it must start with the parents.”
Castro, who says her own experience as a young soccer player was tainted by misguided and misbehaving adults, offers ideas on how adults can improve the youth-sports culture:
Strive to be a mentor. Castro said parents and coaches have a great opportunity to use sports as a teaching tool for life. “The learning aspect of the game needs to be the focal point of youth sports,” she explained. “Sports should be an extension of family values and behaviors. Good parents and coaches tie in the ups and downs of competition with the challenges in navigating adult life.”
Model positive behaviors. Part of the negative image of youth sports is related to parents yelling at coaches, referees, opponents, or even their own kids. “There are enough critics in the stands hurling profanities and insults during a game,” Castro says. “Parents should set the right example for their kid — and for adults who obviously haven’t grown up.”
Enjoy the moment. Too many parents and their young athletes are fretting the future. “Too often it’s all about winning and getting the scholarship, but my parents told me there was a time when kids actually enjoyed playing for the sake of playing, and parents won just by getting to watch them play. We need to get back to that. Without it, memories are wasted.”
Be encouraging. “Celebrate the effort, not just the result,” Castro encouraged. “This goes for youth coaches as well as parents. When kids do some good things, don’t let the mistakes cloud your post-game comments. Be honest in discussing room for improvement, but not at the expense of making them feel like they have to play perfect to get praise.”
Make education first. Castro and many observers of youth sports say parents have lost perspective by thinking their kid is on the fast track to a scholarship or a pro career. Statistics show few advance that far. “In the meantime, kids are exhausted from travel leagues and tournaments,” she warns, “and the way their future through sports is emphasized, education becomes a distant second.”
“Whether a kid decides to keep playing sports or to walk away, he or she should be able to do so without deep regret in having wasted their time.”