Three Questions Youth Sports Parents Should Ask Themselves

My kid just turned four and, like many of your kids around that age, his interest in playing sports is starting to really bloom. He’s always been an active child, but in the past few months, he has become more interested in this whole “sports” thing. In many ways, he has had a typical amount of exposure to sports at this stage: basketball or football are often on the television, he has some friends who have started tee ball or soccer, and he comes to watch me play in an adult sandlot baseball league (ok, maybe that’s a bit more exposure to hipster Austin, TX subcultures than the average kid). But, basically, he’s grown up in a normal American household where sports are enjoyed.

That is, except for one key difference. Me.

For better or worse, my son has a father who happens to be a professor and consultant whose research expertise is in the area of youth athlete development – basically, how we design systems, programs, and policies that optimize not just the development of elite athletes but which make the overall experience of youth sports more positive for children. In other words, let the lab experiments begin! Olympics here we come! On the contrary, the irony of being someone who studies youth sports for a profession is that the more I understand about it, the more judicious and protective I become about ensuring that my son’s youth sports experience is something that my wife and I actively monitor and manage to make sure that he has the coaches and training environments that are likely to produce the best outcomes for his development as a human, not just as an athlete.

You may live under a rock, or you may have noticed that much of youth sports in America has become big business, an arms race to create mini professional athletes whose parents spend thousands of dollars per year on club dues, private training, and jet-setting to tournaments across the country. I won’t use this space to rehash all the troubling trends in youth sports I see when I’m researching or consulting. Numerous media outlets have spent increasing amounts of ink chronicling the crazy side of youth sports. And the purpose of writing this article is not to point out all the things that we are doing wrong with youth sports.

To be fair, there are a lot of things going right with youth sports as well, which speaks, in part, to the real reason I decided to pull back the curtain and share the thought processes behind how I’m approaching my own son’s youth sport experience: Parenting today feels a bit like diffusing a bomb with the clock ticking down. Do you cut the red wire or the blue wire?!? Do I put my kid on a travel team or let her play in the city league?!? Do we specialize in soccer only or do we sample multiple sports throughout the year?!? It’s easy to feel like one wrong decision can blow up those chances of a college scholarship before they even began.

As the parent of a four-year-old, I share your panic. As someone who studies youth athlete development, I’m less worried. The more I’ve discovered about developing young athletes (and developing kids through sports), the more I accept that The Answer doesn’t exist and there is no magic formula for success. Are there research-based approaches that are more likely to check the right boxes for success? Of course. Take the American Development Model, a long-term athlete development approach pioneered in the United States by USA Hockey, as an example. Are there groups of folks who are working to figure out how to make youth sports work better for everyone involved? Absolutely. Just check out what the Aspen Institute’s Project Play is working on.

But, as crazy as it may seem, for all my years studying youth sports, I’m not in a much different position than many of you. I’m a parent trying to do right by my son so that he has every opportunity to lead a successful, happy life. In fact, part of the reason I chose to sit down and share my thoughts is that I want to make sure I’m being as transparent as possible with myself about a complex process that can pull any well-meaning parent in all sorts of different directions.

So, in the coming paragraphs, I’m going to attempt to articulate an answer to the question that I’ve been asked hundreds of times over the past few years (and which we began to address in a panel I hosted at SXSW this past year): How does an expert in youth sports think about his own child’s sports experience?

What follows will be as transparent an account of my thought process as I can offer. What is most important for you, however, is not to just try to do what I’m doing (or not), but to identify the places where I talk through my decision-making and to work on developing your own approach to navigating these forks in the road. These are three key questions I’m asking myself:

What do I want my kid to get out of this experience?

A simple question, but one that really shapes so many of the choices we make. What are my goals for his experience? Is it scholarship or bust? Is it building character and teaching teamwork? All of the above? To start, I think it is essential to acknowledge that sports, in and of themselves, are not inherently good or bad. The child’s experience varies as a function of the way in which that experience is designed and managed. Can sports play a role in developing leadership skills? Absolutely. Do they automatically? Not necessarily. In fact, count me in the camp of folks who are skeptical of the sweeping positive claims we make about sports participation. Also, count me amongst an even smaller group of people who believe that we don’t ask enough of our sports experiences in fostering development in areas beyond the usual “character”-related focus.

Sports are a powerful context through which to develop things that are, frankly, often less easily cultivated in other contexts. They can put us in situations that demand us to experience and manage both the immediate reward of a home run and the delayed reward of a season-long championship pursuit. They force us to face public disappointment and to learn how to focus on process-oriented goals. They are often our first exposure to one of our most elemental human experiences: simultaneously pursuing individual and group goals within a social ecosystem where resources are limited and our ability to influence the success of the group is variable.

If we believe in the efficacy of sports to teach valuable stuff, this is what we are really referring to when we say “character” or “leadership.” Yet, we don’t often think about how sports should be a natural platform for teaching the things that research tells us correlate with success in life: grit, process-orientation, delaying gratification. When the first question we ask a kid when she gets home from her game is “Did you win?” we have to be aware of how that shapes her psychological response to her performance. If she’s a five-year-old chasing around the usual swarm of other kiddos on the soccer field, she isn’t likely to have the self-awareness, sport-related skills, or psychological framework to make a clear impact on the outcome of that game, and yet we just framed how she interprets how we are evaluating her performance in terms that are beyond her control. At her age, we should be asking her if she had fun, what she was proud of herself for doing, one thing she thinks she could work on improving – in other words, things that are process-oriented and generally under her control. So, when I think about what I want my son to get out of playing sports, I think about what psychological and social skills correlate with success in all areas of life, and I focus on how I use sports to instill them. And I can’t rely on coaches or other adults to do that for me.

Is it worth pursuing a scholarship?

It’s no accident that I failed to address the sub-question raised in the previous bullet point about whether one of my goals for my son is a college scholarship. For me, at this moment, I am not of the mindset that earning a scholarship should be a primary goal of his sports participation. You can certainly be of a different mindset than me, but chances are if you are reading a publication like this on a website like this, your child is going to have the proper support to be pursuing higher education through a number of means. And the statistics are pretty clear on this: pursuing an athletic scholarship is not a great financial investment. There are many sports economists who can show you how daunting the percentages are and how much smarter an investment in your child’s future it would be to focus on earning scholarships outside the playing field. And, yet, I know as well as anyone, that these depressing numbers about how many children actually earn athletic scholarships do very little to dissuade parents from pursuing them. When we see our child starting to have some success on the field or the court, our emotional self takes over and wants to do everything to make that dream come true. And on the surface there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with supporting your child’s athletic dreams, but be aware that the financial costs and opportunity costs may not pay dividends down the road – and don’t let that negatively impact your relationship with your child.

I’ve seen far too many parents who have sunk so much money into their children’s sport experiences that they cannot seem to help but feel like they need to get a return on that investment, often at the expense of their relationship with their child. If you are going to prioritize earning a scholarship as a goal of your child’s sport participation, at least give some thought to how you help their chances. And if an athletic scholarship is an absolute pre-requisite to your child being able to afford college, look for a match between their interests and the odds of earning a scholarship. For example, don’t pour money into your son’s soccer playing without realizing that there are only a precious few scholarship-granting men’s soccer programs in the NCAA. Or, think about whether your daughter should play lacrosse or row crew instead of playing soccer, as those are some of the faster-growing areas for women’s varsity programs across the country.

Here at the University of Texas, where I teach, I’ve worked with students of every possible athletic background, and I see that “making it” at even this high of a level is no guarantee for success and happiness; in fact, a lot of the student-athletes have been so focused on sports during their formative years that they seem to be underdeveloped in other key areas. Or they have been so overworked in getting here that they burn-out psychologically or their bodies begin to break down from overuse injuries. There are always trade-offs, and when you are dedicating so many of your family’s resources to the pursuit of an athletic scholarship, the trade-offs associated with success and failure can be severe.

Which sport(s) should he/she play and why?

As a caveat, so much of the answer to this question varies depending on the individual coach and the league, but some sports clearly foster different things than other sports. Do you want a sport that produces better physiological and health outcomes? Try ultimate Frisbee or cross country. Do you want a sport that could lead to easier lifelong participation? Try tennis or golf. Do you want a social environment with more peer-led, democratic social structures? Try skateboarding. Are sports an American rite of passage you believe in? Try baseball or softball. This isn’t a plug for those sports, but rather a chance to think about what sports are set up to deliver and how that might enter our thought process.

My wife and I just signed up our son for his first structured sport activity, and we made sure to think about what we wanted for him in this experience so that we could find a sport to match those goals. For the time being, we have landed on enrolling him in a once-a-week after-school rock climbing (or, “bouldering,” to be precise) club. Now, you may have a reaction – positive or negative – to that choice. It may be too hippy or “extreme” for your tastes, or you may be wishing you lived closer to a rock climbing gym. Either way, we arrived at this decision deliberately. Compared to soccer and tee ball and some of the more traditional team sports environments, we saw some clear advantages to starting out with a sport like rock climbing at this age.

From a physiological standpoint, rock climbing can help him develop transferable physical literacy, core strength that would be essential to any sport, and proprioception (learning how to position his body in a given space) that will be helpful whether he is making a save as a soccer goalie or reaching up to snag a fly ball on the baseball field. I often come back to the question of what will help him become an “athlete,” not just a player of a specific sport. In terms of the psychological considerations, we felt it very important that his first and formative sports experiences come in a setting where the locus of control was almost entirely internal, meaning that he feels that he has complete control over his performance. In the typical four-year-old team sports setting, there are so many factors that can play a role in their performance that kids are often faced with attributions for performance that don’t actually tie to their individual contribution. I want him to feel in complete control of his progress, success, and failure, so that he can begin his sports journey with a greater sense of control and a clearer feedback mechanism, all while participating in a fun social environment. I have seen many young kids lose their initial spark of interest in sports because they get stuck standing in right field waiting for other people to do things or they grow tired of the emotional roller coaster of winning and losing in circumstances where they played an unclear role in that outcome. Rock climbing, it would seem, should be an antidote to those potential poisons: his progress will be measured individually which each movement up the wall.

Only time will tell, and he may absolutely hate it, but if he doesn’t connect with it, we will try to persevere for a bit and then move on to the next option (and decide whether to try again later). And all the while he is enrolled in his rock climbing club, we will continue to play sports informally in the neighborhood. Sadly, this is a disappearing outlet for children these days but it is a great setting within which to develop a deep, joyful appreciation for sports.

Full disclosure: my research has led me to see immense value in the less structured, child-led sport experiences that are often harder to come by for today’s kids and their busy schedules. (Here is a Sports Illustrated podcast in which I talk about a study investigating the role of organized and unstructured sport experiences on the development of creativity). As we think about what sports to put our kids in, we can’t forget that simply going outdoors and playing catch with them, or letting the neighborhood kids round up a game of pickup basketball as they get older, are legitimate sports experiences for children.

So, that’s it for now. We are going to give rock climbing a go while we play some sandlot baseball and kick around the soccer ball in the yard. As his interests and abilities evolve, we will do our best to match them to positive youth sport experiences that align with our short- and long-term goals for him. I don’t have all the answers. None of us does. But I do have some questions, and my hope is that these questions may also help you think about how to make the most of your own child’s youth sports experience.

Categories: Parents, Youth Sports