By Doug Abrams
About ten years ago, the parents of one of my 10-year-old hockey players asked to talk with me after practice one night. Their son was a beginner and not one of the most talented players on the team, but he was everything a youth leaguer should be — a polite kid who tried his best, took instruction well, and got along with his coaches and teammates. No coach could have asked anything more from him or his sportsmanlike, supportive family. With this sterling track record, I assumed that the conversation with the parents would concern something about my coaching.
My coaching hunches are usually pretty good, but not this time.
The parents told me that their son had decided that he did not want to play hockey any more, and indeed did not want to play sports any more. The boy would honor his commitment to the team by finishing the last few weeks of the season, but he said that he wanted to turn to other interests afterwards.
The parents were not thoroughly surprised because the boy had not enjoyed youth baseball the prior summer, but they hoped for a change of heart. Both parents had been high school athletes in a town that emphasized sports, and they assumed that their son would follow the same path. They recognized, though, that the decision rested with the boy.
When the parents sought my reaction, I began by saying that with time and breathing space, their son might well change his mind before long because 10-year-olds often move from hobby to hobby until they settle on one or more. Many kids play sports to be with their friends, for example, so I thought he might return to sports later if his friends continued playing. One way or the other, 10 years old seems mighty young to assume that the door is shut permanently.
I also suggested that the parents talk with their son to try to find out his reasons for wanting to turn away from sports. Perhaps he did not think he was talented enough, though I thought that his talent level showed promise. Perhaps he had bad experiences in youth baseball (or on the hockey team). If a youngster wants to talk at home about problems in sports, sometimes they can be corrected.
Pressure to Play
Then I made two additional points that the rest of this column discusses. First, I said that organized sports is not for all boys and girls, even though the nation’s emphasis on professional and amateur sports can impose considerable pressure on youngsters to play. Second, I told the parents that even if their son did not return to organized sports by his teen years, pressuring him to play now might later lead him to reject recreational “carry over” sports — play for its own sake — that can help sustain a healthy lifestyle throughout adulthood.
The Nation’s Emphasis on Sports
In 1976, writer James A. Michener observed that “[s]ports have become a major force in American life.” If anything, the force has grown even stronger in recent years with the unprecedented saturation of professional and amateur sports in the broadcast and print media, and more recently on the Internet. Newspapers, conventional radio, and network television now coexist with (and frequently face eclipse by) all-sports radio stations, cable and satellite television channels, interactive blogs, and other outlets that provide instantaneous around-the-clock games.
Beginning at the youngest ages, our national emphasis on sports can lead children and their parents to perceive exploits on the field as the preeminent markers of success, sometimes at the expense of excellence in non-athletic pursuits. Sports was important to me when I played in high school and college, and I coached youth hockey for more than 40 years. But parents should remain tolerant of sons and daughters who choose to express themselves outside the athletic arena. Success in sports should be a source of pride, but so should success in worthwhile non-athletic pursuits.
The United States has about 73 million children under the age of 18, and the best estimates are that about 35 million children — slightly less than half — participate each year on at least one organized sports team. Even when we exclude children under five or so from the ranks of the non-participants, the numbers suggest that for one reason or another, many youngsters do not play organized sports, or else do not play for very long before they turn to other activities.
Sports can teach valuable life lessons, but so can worthwhile non-athletic activities that youngsters choose for themselves. No child should be made to feel like an outcast for making these choices. I predicted to my hockey player’s parents that their personable, respectful son would thrive along whatever paths he followed, even ones distant from competitive sports.
The current obesity epidemic will not improve in later years unless more adults assume a healthy lifestyle by embracing carry over sports such as bicycling, tennis, jogging, golf and recreational volleyball. I told my hockey player’s parents that cajoling the boy into playing unwanted competitive sports now might diminish his long term appreciation for athletics as pure play. Supporting his non-athletic choices now might have precisely the opposite effect.
A Happy Ending
Spurning youth sports may be a difficult pill for some parents to swallow at first, but my former hockey player did find other activities that he found rewarding. His choices were art and orchestra, and he stayed with both and did well at them.
He will finish college next year with a solid academic record and promising career prospects. He tells me that he often uses his university’s gym and recreation center, and he tells me that his golf game is respectable too.
A youth sports career could have instilled important values and produced lasting memories, but my former player thrived in the activities he chose for himself. Organized sports simply was not for him, and he is fortunate that his parents respected and supported the choices he continued to make throughout his adolescence.