This is the weekend edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing. When I was in second grade my mom signed me up to play Boys and Girls Club co-ed soccer. The cost, according to my mom’s memory, was around $60, with scholarship available. My team was the kids from my school, and the practices were held in the playground of that school on Tuesday and Thursdays. One coach was the dad of the goalie; another coach was a guy from my church who loved soccer and didn’t have kids yet. We had matching screen-printed shirts that were blue, my favorite color. I mostly played fullback, because it meant less running and I could just hang out with my best friend who was also playing fullback. It was incredibly low-pressure and I still locked myself in the bathroom and refused to come out before my first game.
Thank you so much for writing this piece about youth sports. To your powerful and convincing list of problems with them, I would like to add one more: youth sports have destroyed the wide-ranging, free-flowing neighborhood play among big groups of mixed-age kids that we all enjoyed in generations past. I am old enough to remember these games fondly—our moms would turn us loose after school or all day on weekends and in the summers, and big groups of us would roam around using our bodies and imaginations and developing social skills during quirky games we made up ourselves. (“Orphanage” was one I remember playing—perhaps because of all the books I was reading?)
By contrast, when my kids were young, our affluent NJ suburb was a ghost town when school wasn’t in session because every kid was in organized sports. My daughter is physically disabled, and my son had no desire to do sports (nor, to be fair, did I), so they were excluded from any opportunity for informal play with other kids. This is a huge loss for kids and parents alike, and I am grateful that you are starting this conversation.
This is one of my favorite things you’ve written. Our society’s hostility to genuine leisure is, I think, one of the main reasons that everyone is so stressed and anxious all the time.
I so wish I had written this! We are Gen X parents (sounds better than saying 'old') of a very active, athletic 11 year old living in a suburban area where professionalization of children runs rampant. We've managed to opt out of this crazy system by sticking with LA parks and rec system sports, which are great and inexpensive, if looked down upon by the club crowd. It also helps that my son is naturally inclined to be multi-sport: he was really into swimming every day this summer when he was in the rec center jr. lifeguards program, and now he's really into playing flag football with his buddies at lunch, and has forgotten all about swimming. Soon, he'll be back into basketball and will have forgotten football... I think this is completely age appropriate yet it feels downright countercultural in our area.
We tried to "move up" to Little League--Little League!!-- once, for a short fall ball season, and it sucked the joy right out of baseball for my son. Practices and games were on an ever changing schedule, often resulting in weeks with 4-5 days of baseball. Weekday games were 2.5 hours long and went from after school right through dinner time. I kept looking around and thinking , "do ALL of these kids really love this much work at age 9?" This might be why an author I read (maybe in the book Simplicity Parenting?) lamented that the average kid drops out of team sports by age 11 or 12, which is the age where kids naturally turn from family towards peers and would be a great age to start team sports.
I teach at a D1 school and have taught many scholar-athletes. I delight in them and have tremendous respect for them-- no one can embody a growth mindset like someone who has worked so hard at one thing for so long. But I also don't want my son to have their experience, which is like having a physically punishing full time job that you can get fired from at any time, while going to an academically demanding school full time. Also, I want him to get through his K-16 education without needing a frequent buyers punch card from the orthopedist clinic.
Many commenters have mentioned the tournament racket. My favorite cautionary tale about that is a from a friend who got sucked into club soccer with one of her kids. When they spent thousands of dollars to go to a tournament in Arizona, they ended up playing a club from a neighboring suburb at home.
I do have ideas about fixing this system, most of which involve beefing up city-sponsored rec sports so that at least parents who might be on the fence see that there is a viable, low cost, low time option. Right now our rec center can never meet demand, and sign ups feature long lines at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning, or hovering over your keyboard at midnight, hitting refresh to sign up before a program fills in 10 minutes. If we could hook this system up with our neighborhood schools and hire young adults to coach instead of relying on parent volunteers, we could solve inequitable participation and provide sports as after school care for elementary kids.
YES. And adjacent to all of this, we're also seeing injuries - from overuse, from getting too "professional" and specialized too early - much sooner and in a way that's especially challenging and scary for kids who are still growing.
I am firmly with you, and also I have an almost-five-year-old and I'm already feeling the swirling whirlpool inching closer of the temptation to get him involved in all the things, because that's what we're "supposed" to do. Right now the time commitment is the thing that's giving me the most pause (cheers to laziness!), but the money is such a huge factor, too.
Also related, I'm a pastor, and if I had a dollar for every time my older folks lamented sports schedules, games on Sundays, etc. I could pay for my kid to be on a travel team (ha!). Every time I encounter this, I try to frame it differently for them - I am much less concerned with the impact of youth sports/activities on families' church attendance, and much MORE concerned with how people are run ragged and caught up in the vicious cycle you describe. Sabbath rest is necessary in the rhythm of life, and people barely have time to breathe, let alone delight in creation, rest, worship, etc. I'd love to find a way to encourage people to opt out, but there are so many complicating factors.
Thank you so much for this. I do want to suggest that the problem applies well beyond the upper middle classes you identify (and note that Prince Harry, like me, is a Brit. Different attitudes prevail in the UK) I present on history in schools (I'm a former professor and a MG novelist), mostly Title I schools in the Deep South. I've learned that many working-class parents are anxious that only a sports scholarship will take their kids to college, and while they may not be able to afford traveling teams, they do push kids into every sporting opportunity. In rural Georgia, I talked with a kindly and exasperated elementary school coach who spoke of trying to explain to parents that his students who eventually win athletic scholarships are almost all girls, not football players. In California, I spoke in a rural, almost entirely poor Latino school, and learned that the same applied. Public school academic curriculum is so poor, kids have to be willing just to jump pointless and tedious hoops to get into college via their academic abilities. Add to that the ridiculous amount of time spent in practices, discouraging reading and hobbies, and this becomes a very widespread issue, with most kids arriving in college without a life of the mind. Btw, I'm a Brit, played hockey in my mostly working-class school in the 70s, and we only practiced a couple of lunchtimes a week. Most of us were rubbish at the sport, and loved it. Watching my son growing up in the States, I have been shocked by the exclusivity and cruelty of this system. It prizes strength and confidence above all else, and respects athleticism over character and learning. This doesn't end well for any of us. Thank you again.
I love this, and am frantically searching for a description of our local ‘Perry League,’ vehicular is the antithesis of the professionalizing of kid sport. Perry league is a t-ball league for kids 3-10 in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and it is basically a sport free for all in which you hit if you want, you catch if you can, and you run with abandon, but no one keeps score. Sometimes your child will spend the entire game playing in the sand-that is ok! Sometimes they’ll form unofficial teams and all run the bases at once-that is ok! Some kids are great, sold kids are terrible, no one gets pressured or made fun of and the parents cheer and chat and generally chill. Totally donation based. I cried when I read about it when I was planning my move here. The idea of my daughter playing in an unbridled and non-competitive way brought me to tears, that’s how rare it is. I love it here.
I brought 2 kids (boys) through this system and I agree with every single point made here. We are a divorced family so we didn't have total control--and it's So Hard to be the parents who says no when the other parent is all "We have to do this honey." It tested a fracture that already existed. There were so many arguments. And then, when they reached middle school, it got really serious--to the point that grown men were competing to coach them. And they were not nice men. One told the lacrosse team to "take their tampons out" and play like men. Another hit my son in the head with a lacrosse ball. Others slighted kids for their weight, their poor performances and some for reasons we never understood. There was some elitist popularity contest happening among parents that we were never involved in. But then we felt little guilty for not being involved in it. There were tournaments all up and down the east coast that they would fly to as middle schoolers. We refused, but the boys' bio mom would do it. My husband always said there is nothing to be gained by playing 11 year-olds in Florida versus 11 year-olds in NJ. And the cost!! All these leagues popping up everywhere demanding cash. Private coaching demanding cash. Not to mention how a working parent gets them to all these places. So elitist and also so weird!! These dads marching up and down the sidelines of a third grade basketball game, arms crossed, faces in grim assessment, like they're college coaches. On the one hand it's Fight Club pathetic. On the other, it involves little kids. Anyway, thanks for calling attention to this.
I've thought about this since reading Unequal Childhoods before having my kid (who's now 17). She didn't turn out to be sporty, so we avoided the team sports question, but everything else was also supposed to be treated as a lifelong commitment. Dance, circus (escalated to 2 hours 4 times a week by age 10), & that was the community, low stress school. The local girls' chorus has shirts they sell that say "I can't, I've got chorus" - I never let my kid join, I just couldn't deal. There was no trying out a new activity at, say, 11, in many arenas - you would be "up against" kids who had been doing it intensely since they were 5, & expected to meet that standard.
I often think about how what you call the bourgeois in this piece has shifted from believing they beat the lower classes on talent to believing they beat them on hard work & "grit" per current meritocratic ideals. But how it's a kind of theater - they set up these situations where their kids have to work incredibly hard - harder than anyone else has time for - & then clear everything else from their lives & ignore that part when they win. (The same applies to a degree to the escalation of high school & middle school homework loads too.) There's also a LOT of manipulation of supposedly intrinsic motivations - it just so happens your kid is SUPER intrinsically motivated on fencing & STEM competitions, huh? LOVES it? Right.
Anyway, excellent polemic - thank you!
I LOVE THIS SO MUCH!!!!! I am from rural TN and a scholarship to Georgetown changed the trajectory of my life. I worked my ass off so my future kids wouldn’t need that same trajectory change, which zero of my Wharton grad school classmates understand. I paid it forward, in a sense. I have 4 kids and LOVE being a mom. We dont participate in the bourgeois machine of sports because my kids aren’t interested and honestly dont need it. Everyone thinks I’ve lost my mind, that I’m selfish and hurting my kids and I DONT EVEN WORK!!!! (I actually run a small business but it brings me joy so clearly it will never count).
You nailed so, so much in this piece. The stability I hope my kids will have will come from a childhood that resisted the pressures of hustle culture and insulated them from the looming threat of medical bankruptcy that defined my own childhood.
I have two boys, 2 and 7, and I am doing everything I can to fight against this. I literally do not understand how anyone can make these commitments work with their life— even if I was willing to give up all of my non-work time, I don’t have enough non-work time to accommodate the demands. Working in student affairs at a university, and getting the small amount of exposure to D-1 athletics that I have had, has convinced me I would NEVER want my kids to play sports in college anyway— it’s so gross and exploitative. (Although I guess my “I’ve been working here for 15 years already and now I have kids, so I guess I’ll just stay here for the next 18 years until both kids are through college so that I can use my tuition remission benefits for them” is also a deeply problematic plan and explains why half of my department is still working in jobs they hate and are totally burned out by until their kids graduate).
This all rings so true to me. I think this mindset also creates a weird hierarchy of which kids' activities are legit and which are not. My brother in law's family is a Hockey family (in Ottawa, so, really intense). The oldest kid is a boy and he plays in some high level kids league that seems to take up most of the family's time. The middle girl is made to play ringette, but she loves karate and horseback riding. She's allowed to do these things but gets no support - e.g. her mom refuses to even go to her riding lessons because it's not a "real" sport. Ironically, she is a bit of a handful, and I think she is showing a natural inclination for activities that require a lot of self-discipline, learning patience and control, that should be nurtured! It really makes me sad.
This article was wonderful - thoughtful, provocative, and tenacious in its accuracy. I was a college athlete myself, and struggled after graduating to find exercise I enjoyed - and to do it myself without a coach structuring it for me. I was in an "all or nothing" mindset for so long and had no awareness of it until I had to. Not to mention how much being an athlete was my identity, so I had to re-learn who I was without a sport. We've really put an emphasis on our kids doing something to move their bodies each day, and trying to find family activities like ping pong, spike ball, 4 square that are just fun ways to move and play. I hope they can build healthier habits that way than I did.
We have a young teen and a tween right now. Our teen plays a club sport - soccer. We were lucky enough to have a neighborhood team that was low key with one practice a week and one game a week in fall and spring, much more like what I remember of youth sports growing up. By the time she got to 8th grade, most of her neighborhood team went their separate ways and we tentatively picked a club team because she enjoyed it and wanted to keep playing. Her club team has been a great experience for her with a positive, skills-based coach who has encouraged her and helped her get better. We've had one out of town tournament in two years' time, and it was a couple hours' drive. We lucked out; I cringe when I hear many parents' stories on other teams. It's still a lot of money and a significant time commitment, and I wish there were other options because my kiddo has a lot of other social interests and activities she wants to try but the soccer schedule doesn't always allow for it. I hate the "all or nothing" lack of options that Anne's article speaks to, that to play a kid has to play at a high and elite level, when really sports could be fun and something done on the fly or at maximum through a rec league. Most kids at my daughter's high school cannot make the high school team if they are not also playing that sport at a club level.
My tween is not a fan of team sports overall, which he learned by trying baseball, soccer, and basketball. The aggressiveness and peer meanness started at a much earlier age with his peers on recreational teams, the same kids who eventually moved to club teams. I found the same for parents as well. I'd love for my kids to have a more free-play lifestyle with friends in our neighborhood, but often his peers are busy playing their club schedules and are not available. So it absolutely does become a catch-22 where my kids' main chance to see their friends outside of school is by participating in the same structured activities.
The parent exhaustion is real and I find so few other parents who are honest about it, which increases the sense of shame for those of us who are self-aware enough to realize how draining the weekend kids' activities can be.
This is tangentially related, but definitely something I noticed growing up that gave me some pause. My brother and I are three years apart (I'm older), and he was always more into sports than me. We grew up in a very small town, so the sports he played were nowhere near the level discussed in this piece, but I would still notice that whenever our extended family got together, they would always talk to him about the sports he played/would play in the future.
I don't think of my extended family as being particularly sporty, but his involvement gave them an easy shorthand to connect with him, whereas my interests were more changeable and less obvious, so it seemed a bit like they didn't quite know what to do with me.
It makes me wonder a bit if this push toward more and more professional sports comes also from adults wanting to have an easy way for themselves to identify what their kid's "thing" is, and communicate that to other adults.
The only professional sports prior to the 20th century were boxing and horse racing. Maybe we all need to stop watching and attending. That also goes for college sports, which exist nowhere besides the US, and very limited in the UK. Take away professional sports and you take away most of the incentives talked about here. I enjoy attending MLS games with my husband but would just as soon take a walk, bike ride, or trip to a museum or concert. The resources spent on kids, college and professional sports could be used for lots of other less harmful activities. A lot of adults would be healthier playing flag football together rather than gathering to watch college game days on Saturday and pros on Sunday while they ate and drank too much. And for gods sake end the Olympics. I guess it was a good idea 100 years ago but has long outlived its charm.
Great article. I want to add that injuries to the development of a child's love of play, my nieces and nephews who were encouraged/impressed/driven to participate in soccer, rugby, and football have all suffered physical injuries (as do all athletes, I am sure) that occasionally were serious enough to cause a life-long problem. The physical injury quotient of child sports participation is barely mentioned in this arena. It can be significantly disabling and expensive. We hear about injuries to professional athletes, but not much about those to kids, unless it's linked to other news-worthy matters, like heat exhaustion or nascent heart problems. I don't think parents realize this when they enter this "funnel."
Neither I nor my husband were interested or participated in any sports. My son tried "tether ball" at a young age, but then settled on aikido with a passion. Unfortunately, he did develop injuries, but his pursuit was his choice. He was an outsider with his cousins, but then so were we with his parents.
Thank you SO MUCH for writing this, and especially for including mentions of the sibling sacrifices that sports demand.
My son, age 4, would love to play hockey. Hockey here starts at 5. It's 3 practices a week, and travel at least every 2 weekends, if not every weekend, from September to late April, at least. He has 2 parents, and 2 siblings - EVEN IF I was inclined to do this for him (to pay the outrageous costs, to schlep him to the arena and have him miss sleep at his age, to spend MY time freezing in a cold and smelly arena - which, let me assure you, I'm not), there's just no way I can make his sister and his younger brother sacrifice THIER mornings and weekends in service of HIS sport. And there are no hockey teams that don't require this within a 30km radius, so: have fun, kid, there are some local kids at the outdoor rink, I'll buy you a helmet and a hockey stick, have fun. But you're not joining a team.