Are Casualties Mounting in the “Youth Sports Arms Race”?:
Some New Polling Data
By Doug Abrams
Writing in the Wall Street Journal in 2010, Sue Shellenbarger reported that “the escalating time, travel and financial demands of many competitive youth teams are pushing some parents over the edge. Many are pushing back, dropping teams mid-season, barring year-round competition for their children or refusing to make their kids available for holiday or vacation-time play.”
Shellenbarger was writing about the “youth sports arms race,” whose dynamics sometimes resemble the Cold War brinksmanship that pushed Washington and Moscow each to seek military superiority in the years following World War II. If the Soviets had X missiles, then the United States quickly needed X+, at least until the other side ratcheted up the stakes to the next level.
In the athletic arena, the major armaments are time and money, driven by some parents’ fear that “if the next town’s team played 40 games for seven months last year, our team must play 50 games for eight months this year, or else our kids will fall behind.” Or that “if Johnny and Susie down the block have private coaching, then our Billy and Mary must have it too, and maybe for more hours a week.”
The relentless back-and-forth leads some parents to seek out organized sports for their pre-kindergarten children; to pursue “elite” teams for their elementary schoolers; and to spend ever more on registration fees, private coaches, interstate travel, hotel bills and whatever else seems necessary to keep up. The immediate casualties may be quality family life, including the nighttime dinner table and family vacations. Escalation can bring satisfaction, at least until parents see other families enrolling their own children at even younger ages, spending even more, or saying yes to even longer seasons.
The New Poll About “Trouble Signs”
Shellenbarger called attention to some “trouble signs” that the youth sports arms race may push some families to the brink and perhaps beyond. She pinpointed “marital tension over the demands of sports teams; conflicts or jealousy between siblings over the time and parental attention allotted to sports; or parental resentment over the cost of sports to the family, in money and time.”
A new online poll of 400 youth sports mothers, released late this summer, suggests that Shellenbarger exposed a tender nerve nearly four years ago. The poll, conducted by the online market research company uSamp, was commissioned by i9 Sports, a youth sports league franchise marked by such features as one-day weekly commitments, local play without long-distance travel, and focus on fun. The poll results show the stress that escalating youth sports demands can exact on families.
Sixty-eight percent of mothers responding said that their child’s youth sports involvement causes stress in their lives; 51% said that this involvement causes stress for the whole family; 24% said that it causes conflict with their significant other; and (4) 24% said that they have resented their children because sports consumes too much time. Seventy-six percent of mothers polled said that they are happy when the sports season is over.
Seventy-nine percent of mothers said that they wanted an alternative to the youth sports “win at all costs” mentality; 54% said that the competitive culture of youth sports hurts children; and 23% said that they or their children have been excluded socially because the children were not as talented as other children. Of mothers who reported stress, 87% blamed scheduling conflicts, including five-night-a-week commitments; 67% cited cost; and 53% said that sports deprived their families of holidays, weekends and free time.
Individual Family Decisionmaking
Each family must resolve for itself the appropriate level of commitment to youth sports, and no poll or public discussion can assure the right balance or determine the outcome. “In the 1950s and 1960s,” says Rick Wolff, “‘conspicuous consumption’ was a national rage and “‘keeping up with the Joneses’ was an American obsession. It would appear that the newest manifestation of these competitive desires is revealed by today’s sports parents who always want something more, bigger and better for their athletically-inclined kids.”
Brooke de Lench calls on parents to consider whether “to restore some sanity and find a better balance” between sports and other aspects of family life, and she points the way with helpful tips. Longtime Minnesota high school hockey coach and official Hal Tearse says that sometimes parents should “exercise [their] rights and obligations as a parent and say no. No to excessive travel, no to overlap, no to the destruction of the family for the sake of sports.”
Other parents, however, thrive on competitive commitments and view busy scheduling as best for their families. Massachusetts attorney Bill Heney, for example, tells the Boston Globe that his children’s hockey schedules are “something we all love and can do together as a family.” Sports “is a way to spend some great quality time with your kids,” adds Gregg Lowis of Springfield, Illinois, “We’re pretty much at games constantly.”
Seeking the Right Balance
One size does not fit all, but discussion among parents and thoughtful commentators offers perspectives that are important to families seeking to achieve the right balance among sports, family time, academics, and lifestyle. So do polls and surveys that report parents’ attitudes in the aggregate.
I suspect that when some hesitant parents see another family pursuing the youth sports arms race, they may feel guilt for shortchanging their children by being the “only” parents who want to slow down and perhaps say no. The new polling data, and the anecdotal evidence amassed by so many writers, suggest that this isolation is misplaced because parents who want to pull in the reins have plenty of company.
I see a similar dynamic among first-year law students here at the University of Missouri. When a student in a 70-member class has trouble mastering a particular reading assignment, the student may fear that he or she is the only one having trouble because nobody else wants to talk about their own feelings. The truth, however, is that if one student finds an assignment perplexing, it is usually because the assignment perplexes much of the class. Each perplexed student has plenty of company but might not realize it.
Law students are much better off when they realize that most of their classmates face the same challenges as they do. Youth sports parents seeking to achieve the right balance for their family can best reach informed decisions when they realize that many other parents wrestle with the same conflicts and reach a variety of conclusions. “Yes” is a possible answer, but so is “no.”
[Sources: Sue Shellenbarger, Kids Quit the Team for More Family Time, Wall St. Journal, July 21, 2010, page D1; i9 Sports Survey – Moms Stress Over Sports, http://www.ocalamom.com/profiles/blogs/i9-sports-survey-moms-stress-over-sports, i9 Sports, http://www.i9sports.com/; uSamp, http://www.usamp.com/; Brooke de Lench, Balancing Sports and Family: 13 Tips for Parents, http://www.momsteam.com/successful-parenting/balancing-sports-and-family-13-tips-for-parents; Hal Tearse, Parenting for the Game of Life, http://www.momsteam.com/blog/hal-tearse/parenting-game-life; Joseph P. Kahn, Families With Multiple Children, Sports Wrestle Logistical Nightmares, Boston Globe, Nov. 9, 2013; Alissa Groeninger, Starting ‘Em Young, State J.-Register (Springfield, Ill.), Nov. 11, 2012, p. 45]