Are Kids' Sports Reformable?
An interview with Linda Flanagan
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Last year, right about this time, I made the case against kids’ sports. When the piece first went up, I received a steady stream of emails: parents voicing their own frustrations with the available options (or lack thereof), all ages reminiscing about the way kids’ sports “used to be.” But most people also argued that getting rid of sports altogether was a bridge too far. I agree — and admitted as much in the intro of the piece. But I also wanted to play around with the form of a polemic, and ask myself (and others) to see what arguments for kids’ sports readers reached for first. Do we have compelling enough reasons for preserving a practice and infrastructure that’s become so toxic for so many?
In Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania Are Ruining Kids’ Sports, and Why It Matters, Lina Flanagan — a coach, a former high school athlete, and a freelance journalist — lays out many of my same concerns, in even greater detail. But she also makes the counter-argument: that kids’ sports are worth saving, and in fact, there are people already doing that work. I’m compelled by her arguments, but I’m not sure if I’m all the way convinced: do we need sports if we have movement and exercise? Does competition under our current scarcity-driven capitalism always grow toxic? Are all the studies about the benefits and positive outcomes of participating in high school sports far more rooted in the benefits and positive outcomes of being a person who has the leisure time (not having to work as a teen!) that accompany certain class positions? Am I skeptic only because I didn’t have a competitive high school sports experience? (And found a very different route towards athleticism?)
Whatever your current thinking, I encourage you to take some time with Flanagan’s arguments here — and I look forward to pushing these ideas more in the comments. Do you see any of these reforms or pushback in your own community? Are inclusive and competitive kids’ sports actually possible? What sort of sports environment would you have thrived in as a kid — and what do you want for the next generation? (And if you want to be part of a comments section that’s not the worst place on the internet, here’s how to subscribe).
I want to start out with some table-setting here, because I know there are a lot of readers who don’t have kids (or don’t have kids who have kids who’ve gone through these systems) and have very little idea of how the entire landscape of organized sports have changed over the last, oh, 30 years. If a kid wants to play soccer in, say, the suburbs of Atlanta, baseball in Seattle, lacrosse in Madison, Wisconsin, hockey in Grand Rapids, Michigan, or basketball in Ft. Worth, Texas — what does that look like?
As the great sports sociologist Jay Coakley told me, “People are ignoring the changes in youth sports over the last 20 years. The stakes have changed so dramatically.” I spend about a third of my book going over what those changes are, and what they mean for parents—whether they’re in Atlanta, Seattle, Grand Rapids, or Ft. Worth.
The first has to do with money. Youth sports are a $19 billion industry, four billion more than the NFL. It has grown by 90% since 2010. This is a function of several factors: the decline in public spending on kids’ sports during the 1970s, following the recession; the surge in girls who went into sports during the 1990s, when Title IX enforcement picked up; Disney’s opening of its huge Wide World of Sports Complex in 1997, which hosted championships for kids and proved wildly successful; the copycat behavior of municipalities around the country, who decided they needed to build fancy sports complexes for kids, too (and there are now 30,000 of them, ten times what existed in 1997); and the recession of 2008, which really put an end to most public funding for parks and rec departments and other local sports options. The private sector filled the void.
The second big cultural change that elevated youth sports has to do with the altered understanding among parents of what they owe their kids. As the great Jennifer Senior put it in her book All Joy and No Fun, children moved “from our employees to our bosses.” This shift also started during the recession in the 1970s, when anxious parents started to fret about how their kids would ever succeed in this fragile economy. About the same time, grainy photos of lost kids on milk cartons became commonplace, sparking an exaggerated fear of stranger danger. The world seemed perilous, marriages were disintegrating, the birthrate declined, and suddenly children were more precious and in need of parents’ constant attention—hence playdates, mandarin lessons, Kumon classes, and organized youth sports.
The sociologist Annette Lareau called this parenting approach among the middle and upper classes “concerted cultivation.” The intellectual canopy that hung over and sparked these social changes was neoliberalism, the belief that the individual is solely responsible for her success or failures, and that there is no society. Children’s achievements, then, became the sole responsibility of the parents, making the kids’ accomplishments a reflection of an upstanding parent. What better way to demonstrate that wonderfulness than honing a child’s athleticism?
The third big shift during the last several decades are those that have occurred at colleges and universities. Tuition costs have soared, acceptance rates have plummeted, and colleges are opaque about what they’re looking for. But coaches still need to fill their rosters, and the number of college teams and athletes has swelled. Indeed, so eager are universities to fill their teams that they allow significant advantages in the admissions process, including dropping the academic standards for some athletes and streamlining the tortured process. Savvy parents began to realize that nurturing their child’s athletic skill might translate into admission to a better college or even, possibly, some kind of athletic scholarship. This would require going all in on youth sports, starting as soon as possible.
What does this mean for youth sports? In low-income communities, it means kids aren’t playing as much. They start sports later, leave them earlier, and are far more likely to be inactive overall. (A third of kids from very low-income households are completely inactive.) In the absence of low-cost public options, poorer kids have been priced out of sports.
In middle and upper-income areas, youth sports options have soared. Private clubs and leagues have sprung up to train kids, beginning at younger and younger ages. In my town, for example, the big private soccer club now offers weekly soccer sessions with professional coaches—for four-year-olds. Parents feel compelled to get their children involved, for fear that delaying will put their kids at a disadvantage.
The costs are high: one study carried out by the Aspen Institute Sports and Society Program found that families spend an average of $693 per child, per sport, annually. Another survey of families with kids just on private teams discovered that 27% paid more than $500 per month on each child’s sports. Sports have become so important to these families that 36% reported taking fewer family vacations and 19% said they did or would be willing to take a second job if needed to fund their kids’ sports.
What *is* the case for saving kids’ sports? If sports are injuring our kids, teaching them unhealthy ideas about body image, sucking family’s time and financial resources, exacerbating pre-existing class divides…..why not just, I dunno, get rid of organized sports altogether?
I need this spelled out, because from where I stand, I understand that sports are good for teamwork and belonging, but I also look around at my peers who were athletes back when they were kids, teens, and young adults, and now they’re really struggling with injuries, aggravations, and even brain damage incurred when they were younger….or I see people who were really shamed and hurt in forced athletic play, and have a lot of enduring trauma around sports in general.
Let me start by saying that I agree with many of your concerns. Organized youth sports can be awful, in a variety of ways: drudgery and humiliation for those disinclined (but forced) to play, especially younger kids; a wellspring of physical and emotional exhaustion for those who play competitively out of obligation or habit, especially teenagers; and for parents doing the driving/managing, a major detour from a full life. Meanwhile, sports for the most athletic and enthusiastic on the lower end of the economic spectrum can be out of reach—and another domain in which to feel marginalized and insignificant.
But—and you knew it was coming—organized sports must be preserved, because the advantages that accrue to those who play in moderation are overwhelming. The research on the health benefits alone are striking. Just learning to kick, jump, and throw improves cardiovascular health during childhood and into adolescence. Kids who grow up engaging in sports reduce their chances of developing metabolic syndrome, which is linked to heart disease and diabetes in adulthood. Exercise at any age contributes to better sleep, itself a crucial feature of good health. “The single strongest predictor of later-life physical activity,” the authors of one study concluded, “was whether he played a varsity sport in high school, and this was also related to fewer self-reported visits to the doctor.”
Exercise also improves brain functioning. It enhances executive function in young children, helping them block distractions and toggle between subjects. Regular exercise also alters how sound is managed in the brain; collegiate athletes were found to be better able to pick up sounds and ignore background noise. Just as critical, exercise enhances the ability to “self-regulate”—to exert control over one’s own behavior. Among older adults, exercise also improves word memory. Countless studies involving mice have found that running creates new neurons in parts of the brain related to learning and recall. Weight training has a similar effect: it can improve thinking and offset memory loss (at least with rats). Because varied levels of movement sharpen memory, problem solving, focus, and creativity, writes Annie Murphy Paul in The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain, school leaders who want their students to excel academically “should be advocating for an increase in physically active recess time.”
The role of sports in women’s overall advancement may be even greater than realized. In a landmark analysis that compared life outcomes among women before and after Title IX passed. Wharton professor Betsey Stevenson attributed the rise in female education rates, employment, and pursuit of “male” jobs to the surge in girls’ sports opportunities. “It appears as if sports participation induced by Title IX had a large and statistically significant effect on female educational attainment,” she wrote. States with more sports options for girls also had a greater concentration of women pursuing jobs in law, accounting, and veterinary medicine.
I can also speak to these advantages personally. I’ve witnessed growth among the hundreds of runners I’ve coached—the natural way they come to inhabit their bodies, the evident pride they glean from training and racing, the glimpses of dawning self-knowledge they sometimes reveal. Though not without hiccups, my own youthful experiences with sports helped prepare me for life. By throwing me into excruciating but ultimately trivial situations that were absent from the rest of my life—bases loaded, two outs, two strikes—they compelled me to grapple with what felt like intolerable pressure. I learned I would survive. Playing for a rotating cast of coaches and with an ever-changing group of teammates, I learned how to get along, and how to work with others.
Most important, engaging in serious play on the tennis court and softball field helped me figure out who I was: self-conscious, trapped in my own head, and inclined to anxiety and self-flagellation. Despite these handicaps, I began to think of myself as an athlete, as someone who could achieve things physically that most others couldn’t. These were the early stirrings of confidence, an alien state of mind for me that became more manifest as I grew and moved on to other sports.
For these reasons, sports should be saved. Kids at all income levels should be encouraged to play them as they were meant to be played: for fun, in moderation, and without excessive adult hovering or interference. I believe there needs to be space for competitive youth sports, too, but beginning in mid-adolescence. Anyone who has experienced athletics at their best, where the coach is devoted and knowledgeable, the team cohesive and determined, and the play intense but fair understands how special that experience is. In repairing youth sports, we have to be careful to preserve what makes them so powerful.
How much of the current state of organized sport is connected to the ever-disappearing reality of the American Dream? Put differently, it’s more difficult than ever for kids to replicate or rise above their parents’ class status — but sports *seem* to offer a cheat code, and parents are willing to make a lot of sacrifices in order to access that code.
Some of this has to do with chasing the American Dream—coming from nothing, but through hard work and dedication rising up the economic ladder and striking it rich. For some low-income families who are betting that their son will be the next LeBron, I suspect this is a driver. Professional athletes are such exalted figures in our country—34 of the 100 highest paid celebrities are athletes, according to one Forbes survey—that it’s no wonder some parents see this as a path to riches, no matter how vanishingly small their child’s chances are.
My sense, though, with middle- and upper-income families is that what drives the extremes in youth sports is less a worry about safeguarding economic prospects as it is a quest to preserve or elevate their own social status, though of course the two are linked. Athletes of all ages are celebrated. Full-grown adults with responsible jobs and huge mortgages fawn over eight-year-olds who can hit and catch a ball. Some of that luster reflects back on the humble parents who created this little star. It’s no wonder parents want a piece of this, and go overboard in cultivating their kids’ athletic skills. And insofar as excellence on the playing fields can deliver kids to a more prestigious college than their grades and scores suggest, youth sports offer one way for kids to maintain or even elevate their parents’ class status.
In other words, it’s not so much fear of their children falling behind economically as it is anxiety over having to report that their offspring didn’t make it to an Ivy. I say this because in upper-middle-class communities like mine, some of the most overzealous families are plenty wealthy and well-connected; even without having attended a top-ten university, the kids will be just fine. What’s at stake, I believe, is the standing of the parents. How horrifying to report that one’s offspring are attending Connecticut College when you’re a graduate of Yale!
People are generally on board that abusive coaches are bad, full-stop. But sometimes I think there’s a pretty reductive understanding of the ways that coaches’ behavior can be abusive — particularly when it comes to body image, homophobia, and attitudes towards winning, sacrifice, and pain. As a coach yourself — what is the problem with coaches, and how does it ever get better?
One of the greatest paradoxes of youth sports today has to do with the individuals we put in charge of training our children—the coaches. To be blunt, we could be a lot better. Despite the money sluicing through club teams, travel leagues, and school sports, as well as parents’ enormous emotional and financial investment in their kids’ athletics, the quality of coaching in America is uneven and sometimes awful. Few are trained properly for the work. Many continue to rely on the primal scream, or even outright physical harm, to spur better performance. A smaller number sexually abuse their charges. And as more girls have flocked to sports following Title IX, fewer women now coach them. For something we claim to care so much about, we don’t do an especially effective job of putting qualified people in charge.
Some of these transgressions are a function of the coaches’ scant training. Of the roughly 7.5 million who work with children and teenagers, about four million are volunteers; these latter are the ones helping out with Little League, youth soccer, and CYO basketball. But less than 5 percent of these coaches receive “relevant” instruction, according to the National Committee for Accreditation of Coaching Education, a reality I observed when coaching my young son: after signing up to coach, I showed up to practice without having attended a single training session. The interscholastic level isn’t much better. Just 25 to 30 percent of coaches in high schools get training.
There are also too few women coaches, at all levels. Title IX famously launched girls into sports, but it has, less famously, pushed women out of it. Since its passage in 1972, the number of women who coach has continued to fall. In 1972, 90 percent of women’s collegiate teams were coached by women. In 2014, the percentage dropped to 43. Data on high school coaches is scant, but what does exist indicates that few women lead teams: a 2014 study in Minnesota found that only 21 percent of head coaches, and 28 percent of assistant coaches, were women. At the youth level, too, women heads are atypical. A 2015 study conducted by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association found that just 27 percent of kids’ sports teams up to age fourteen are coached by women.
We’ll start repairing these problems with coaches when we do a few things differently. First, we need to view them as educators and train them accordingly. Coaches need to see themselves as educators, too, rather than drill instructors. “Coaches have a privileged view of kids,” the neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang told me. It’s our duty to help them “grow into happy, motivated, ethical citizens,” she said. This means being educated in child development, social and emotional learning, positive coaching—all of it separate and apart from the mechanics of a sport.
The second necessary change is larger and more daunting: moving away from the idea, so popular in sports, that suffering is the supreme virtue. The young people I’ve worked with have been hit over the head with this message. Yes, sticking to a hard challenge when you want to quit is wonderful. Being resilient, persevering, overcoming obstacles: all good! What’s not good, and needs to be challenged, is the belief that toughness alone is what matters. What you’re being tough about needs to factor in. You might despise running, even after giving it a fair try. Maybe it’s tennis you can’t tolerate. That’s OK! There’s something to be said for matching your natural abilities and inclinations with the right activity; there’s no shame in recognizing where your strengths are and focusing there. And though some suffering is inevitable in high-level training, it has to be leavened by joy, pleasure, and fun. I should add that this suffering has to be chosen, as the writer Paul Bloom discusses in The Sweet Spot.
So, these are two ways of making coaching better: more training, and challenging the notion that suffering is all. The third major adjustment—let’s call it a paradigm shift—has to do with how we as a culture view athletics. Even in kids’ games, we’re fine with belligerence and rudeness, not only among coaches but also among fans. For the casual cruelty to stop, we need to think of coaching as a form of education, and to regard coaches as educators. A good rule of thumb: any behavior we don’t tolerate in the classroom we should reject on the playing fields.
A lot of parents see the problem with the system as is. They’re absolutely willing to say what sucks about it. But they’re also not willing to opt out of it, if it means their kid won’t have the same opportunities as other kids. To me, it seems like an absolutely textbook example of the deep limits of individual change: when one person protesting a system seems that ineffectual, people opt instead to reconcile themselves to the status quo….and, well, nothing changes. Or, if anything, the system just gets more intense, more consuming, more expensive.
The only solution is, as you lay out so compellingly in the book, structural change. But in this particular moment, systems are incredibly resistant to that change — in a way I’m actually somewhat surprised by. As in, instead of using the disruption of the pandemic as a moment for real reimagining, we’ve almost retrenched — particularly bourgeois parents who are as terrified as ever that their children have or will “fall behind.”
So how do you make the case right now that structural change is possible — and what are you seeing as the biggest stopping block for its actual achievement?
Before addressing the question of structural change, I would argue that parents can and should act individually to address some of this. Indeed, I believe that resisting the pull to join this universe is better for their kids and their families—even for those parents who are most worried about falling behind. This is so because the song and dance that’s being sold — “sign your kid up for year-round lacrosse, for only $5,000, we’ll get your child to the next level!”— often proves wrong. Kids get hurt, they drop out, they’re actually not otherworldly athletes. If parents understood better what’s going on, and how unlikely it is that their children will play in college at all (just six percent of high-school athletes do), let alone get an athletic scholarship, they might decide—even those who are most concerned about “falling behind”—that there are better ways to prevent that decline. My point is, even if you’re only concerned with self-interest, this sports mania in most cases is destructive.
But convincing well-off parents that the sports obsession is foolish would only fix half the problem; low-income families don’t have the luxury of saying “that’s enough for us.” Bringing inexpensive, safe, and plentiful sports to poor kids will take some top-down reform.
In my book, I share some of the big ideas for how to do this. The first, espoused by Villanova sociologist Rick Eckstein, calls for radically restructuring college sports. The nuclear option he proposes calls for ridding colleges of varsity sports entirely and invigorating club and intramural sports instead. (Hah!) A less threatening plan would preserve varsity sports but end the expense and rigmarole of recruiting; coaches would pick their teams by tryouts, the way high school teams do. Along the way, admissions offices would do away with the special dispensations offered to recruited athletes. This change would eliminate the incentive for parents to spend a fortune on their kids’ athletics.
Another tantalizing model for reform would bring more federal oversight into the youth sports environment. University of Baltimore law professor Dionne Koller is an outspoken advocate of this thinking. The key is to “bake youth sports into the administrative state,” as she put it to me, so that we have a better understanding of what we’re doing and where we’re messing up. A government entity could also set standards, register teams, offer best practices, and help states coordinate regional sports leagues. A compelling reason to do this, she said, is because most people think regulation already exists, and because the lack of oversight allows for unchecked abuses.
The final model I discuss suggests severing sports from schools and returning them to communities. Professor of sports management B. David Ridpath is a proponent of this approach. Most European countries provide sports to kids via local, publicly funded, afterschool clubs. Kids aren’t excluded based on family income, and the tenor and tone of youth sports are reasonable: the focus is on age-appropriate athletic development and fun. The catch? It ain’t cheap.
Despite the enthusiasm among experts for top-down reform, few of the ones I spoke to are sanguine about it happening. The greatest obstacle to change is the lack of an established and monied constituency to push for it. The parties who now “speak” for youth sports consist of trade lobbies, the NCAA, and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, each equipped with varying degrees of money and players on the ground in Washington, DC. None of these groups is enthusiastic about government regulation or abolishing intercollegiate athletics or severing sports from schools. Opposite them are academics, think tanks, former professional athletes, and random others who would like to upend the status quo.
All that being said — change is coming, in fits and starts. The Aspen Institute Sports and Society Program, run by Tom Farrey, has been calling for reform, and getting attention, since 2011. The organization has filled in where government hasn’t: it collects and analyzes data, organizes like-minded groups to speak with one voice, and recently called for a national embrace of the Children’s Bill of Rights in Sports.
And there are individuals in communities across the country who are fed up and organizing to change the template. In my book, I write about Julie McCleery, who helped form a network of sports organizations in and around Seattle devoted to serving low-income kids; Fred Bowen at the Post just wrote about a Massachusetts father who wanted no part of travel soccer for his family, and launched a thriving local alternative. In New York, State Assemblymember Monica Wallace insisted that $5 million of proceeds from online sports betting be set aside annually to fund sports options for children in poor communities. I include other examples in my book of individuals pushing back against the current model in ways that help others. It’s not hopeless! And as B. David Ridpath reminded me when we commiserated over the obstacles: bigger things have been done before.
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