An interview with Linda Flanagan
Thank you so much for this interview. I'm a former competitive athlete (current recreational athlete) with two elementary school aged daughters in youth sports. This echoes much of my experience so far. Sports, and especially team sports, were incredibly important to building my understanding of myself growing up. Even now, competing against myself in a reasonable way motivates and fills me in a way that not much else does. I've seen this in both of my kids, but in one of my daughters in particular. She is never happier than when she is moving and playing. Participating in team sports has given her connections to other kids and a sense of belonging that is truly wonderful to witness. Could she get these things through other means? Probably. But she hasn't found them yet and she has found sports.
The feeling that my kids won't have the same opportunities as other kids if they opt out of the competitive sports program is very, very real. At least in my area, there is a strong assumption that kids will fall behind if they don't start competitive programs at a young age. I think this is gross. I hate it. And yet when my kid comes to me and asks to play with her friends and worries she won't get picked for this or that team if she doesn't join them in some program or other, it's really hard to be the parent who says no.
We've also had less than great experiences with some of the recreational and less competitive sports youth sports programs in the area. Some of them are great and we have opted to stay in those programs over more competitive ones. But one rec league in particular was not great, and my experience is that this was due directly to the lack of training and self-selection of the parents who volunteered to coach. I'm grateful that these parents volunteered to take the time to coach, but I also realize that in this program, those parents exacerbated the worst possible aspects of youth sports. Yelling was common. There was no control of parents on the sidelines so those parents were yelling at their kids or trying to coach from off the field. The coaches (and the league) didn't have the resources or the framework to work with parents who didn't have time to be overinvolved or didn't speak English as a first language. And all but one of the coaches we experienced were men. It turns out that those guys who played co-ed rec sports as adults and ruin it for everyone are also the guys who coached their kids in this co-ed rec sports league and ruined it for all the adults and kids. I tried volunteering and spent two years justifying myself and abilities to other (male) parents before finally getting frustrated and quitting. The other female parents who have tried to volunteer and that I have talked to had similar experiences, and none of them stuck around. (See also: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/08/22/women-coach-boys-sports-leadership/).
Switching to a more competitive (read: expensive) program was like night and day. The coaches are professionals and know how to teach effectively in a positive environment. Parents are not allowed to coach or yell from the sidelines, and this is strictly enforced. It's been a way better experience for all involved.
So what do we do as parents? I would love to see the atmosphere and quality coaching that are available in a private/competitive program be available to everyone regardless of economic status and skill level. I'm really encouraged by the references in the article to others who are spending time and resources trying to make this happen.
This was such a good read. My kid is 8 and LOVES soccer and is playing on his first "travel" team (nothing overnight, just other nearby towns), and it is the sort of thing where the way his current organization does it works really well, but I know it only works that well because a LOT of people have put a ton of time, energy, and money into getting it there. They've spent the last 4-5 years making sure that everything is translated so that kids whose parents don't speak English can participate. They make sure that financially anyone who wants to participate can. They support coaching training for anyone who volunteers. And none of this happened overnight--they had to set metrics (e.g. the demographic makeup of the league should reflect the demographic makeup of the school district) and be accountable to them!
The thread I'm trying to pull on, and I'm not sure if this is a function of where I live, COVID stuff, financials or what--probably a little bit of everything--is how few options there are to just...learn something and try it out. When I was a kid, it really seemed like there were tons of 4-6 week programs (ice skating! swimming! basketball!) that had an instructional rather than a competitive focus. It's so hard to try stuff out when you have to either commit to an exorbitant monthly fee or an entire semester/year of something. When my kid was preschool age there was a great rec program where high schoolers basically ran a "try a bunch of sports" class for them--more of that needs to happen at older ages!
We have a son with sensory neurodivergence who requires daily movement to remain calm and functional. Club soccer in the PNW was a critical outlet, but I have to agree with most of Linda's concerns. Forget the crazy private school level annual fees. The PNW club soccer scene is way too aggressive at pushing kids to try out for the USL leagues. Everything is a development team. There's too much emphasis on A-D teams. Who wants to show up knowing they're on the "D" team? He eventually got sick of it, sparing us the need to pull the plug ourselves. But, when we did, we received lots of aggressive phone calls to keep him involved. The club sports are too expensive and elitist, for sure, but they do teach teamwork and team competition at a valuable age. These clubs need to ratchet down the Type A competitiveness and the A-hole coaching. It's one thing to aggressively coach teens. This is not helpful for 8-year-olds. We're not Vikings, preparing for a life of internecine violence.
This was such an interesting read, and I’m curious to read the book now. Maybe because it confirms a bias I have - I DO wish that my parents had made me play team sports! I was such a painfully interior kid, so introverted and independent. Horseback riding and gymnastics and flute lessons sure did not teach me how to just buck up and get along with a group. Those skills came later after some high school/college years with tough group dynamics because I, quite genuinely, sucked at being a “team player”.
I thought this interview was great (and heartbreaking, of course, as the parent of a soccer-crazed-but-by-no-means-prodigious-at-it-thank-goodness 9 YO whose current team is chill and just fun but won't be there for him forever). One thing I keep going back and forth on as I think about it is how much the devolution of youth sports is its own phenomena vs. how much this is just one more tentacle of this continued hyper competitive moment in White-dominant professional managerial class parenting. Like, in what ways are the ways that privileged parents relating to youth sports differently than the ways they're (we're) relating to schools, "college prep," etc.? My gut is that it's the exact same issue, but I'm open to the fact that there's a nuance here I'm missing (I suppose one argument is, "while privileged parents have always been competitive and resource hoarding IRT schools, adding sports into the mix is a new phenomena, for all the reasons the interview discusses).
TY for this interview AHP! I'm going to chat with Linda later for my own newsletter so this is great extra intel.
I wonder if I would have a different perspective on kids' sports without COVID canceling them completely and seeing what life is like without sports. NOT having them was pretty rough.
I have 2 kids who have different takes on sports--one has the 'eye of the tiger' and needs to learn to be more of a team player and good sport. The other is a bit more tentative and I think benefits from learning to push himself a bit and learn the value of working at something that doesn't necessarily come naturally to you. (Amazing how inherent these traits are.)
But in neither case am I interested in going all in and dedicating all our lives and time to their team sports. It's not good for them or for me. Fortunately for the moment their leagues are not that intense but that will likely change as they get older. There needs to be a sweet spot for kids to explore these values and move around and experience low stakes challenges without it being their entire lives. And yeah I can't stand coaches/parents who take it all too seriously. The odds of most of these kids going on to have some sort of meaningful college/pro career are nil (frankly I think being a pro athlete seems like an awful job) so some of them really need to settle down and get real about their attitudes towards the situation.
"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." This whole paragraph was my exact experience with sports, too. I keep thinking about high schoolers during the pandemic and how different my life would be (really!) if I hadn't had the chance to make the varsity basketball team sophomore year back in 2003. Not to be hyperbolic, but I can trace back so much of my confidence (wait, suddenly being tall is... good?!), positive decision making, spacial awareness, and ability to think quickly, consider others, and make friends... to basketball. My personal experience makes me feel like youth sports are worth saving, but I can see the absurdity of present day youth sports, too. I used to ref kids JUST learning how to play, and instead of blowing the whistle every 2 seconds we'd let them play and yell out reminders "you have to dribble!" but the number of parents we nearly had to throw out at these 5 year olds' basketball games...!! Parent egos and the money machine of youth sports are like a monster feeding itself. I've really enjoyed thinking about this topic in both of your posts - and I love the solutions presented (imagine college sports tryouts!), the Cambridge dad, etc.. and I am definitely going to check out Linda's book. Thank you!
Thanks for this interview, Anne and Linda!
I'm a white, middle-class millennial mom to a 3 year old and already feel like the kids sports machine is impacting our lives. I enrolled my daughter in a "Parent and Me" soccer class when she was 2 (which she hated so we stopped going after the second session) and are currently in a "Parent and Me" swim class at the Y (which she loves!) I never thought I would do this stuff so early, but because I work full time outside the home, these are the only weekend opportunities available for "formal" Mommy and Kid interaction, and THAT is how they suck you in!!!
So now they have the middle class and above working parents and kids hooked in, and they are the ones with more income to pay for the private leagues with better coaching and opportunities. Considering how little paid time off all American adults get at their jobs, of course they're going to spend their vacation time at the travel league tournament! They already see their kids very little each weekday - it only makes sense that they will prioritize the kids tournaments on the weekends over a more leisurely vacation.
I have another theory of why it's getting worse - it's because parents are now reliving their intensive K-12 sports careers (or lack there of) through their kids. Again, I thought "that won't happen to me" but I see my 3 year old's amazing ability to hit a pitched ball (she is better at it than her 6 year old best friend!) and everything comes flooding back. What started as an innocent backyard game turned into visions of trophies in my head. I also think about I stopped playing softball at the end of 10th grade because I needed to get a job in order to help my parents by paying for my own gas/insurance/cell phone bills. Seeing my daughter's natural love for and ability with horses made me suddenly get serious about my finances so that when she is 5-6 years old I can start paying for my only child to have private lessons my parents could have never afforded for even one of their multiple kids.
The funny thing is that my parents never pressured us about being amazing at sports. Growing up, all of the anxious pressure about competitive sports came from society and my peers. I will say this, though: I do believe that my brother played rec baseball a lot longer than he otherwise would have because my dad was super enthusiastic about assistant coaching and he didn't want to disappoint him.
I'm glad you pointed out the athletic benefits of sports because it is 100% true in my case related to my chronic health issues. I have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and my doctors believe that my case is milder because despite having loose connective tissue I built up muscle strength when I was younger through softball. For various reasons I suspect my 3 year old will also be diagnosed with it, and so I'd like to gently nudge her towards sports that will build up her muscles in her youth but are sports that also can be enjoyed lifelong. Provided that she in the middle-class or above as an adult, sports such as swimming and horseback riding can be lifelong sports for her no matter her ability level. If she wants to play team sports I certainly won't stop her, but it can a rough transition for even typical young adults when they have all of this intensive training and then no way to play after high school or college.
Great interview (and great follow to last year's thoughtful story on youth sports). I'll find/purchase Linda's book as soon as I post this.
I run a small non-profit for soccer camps and clinics in an underserved area of Dallas. But we're now changing the model b/c, frankly, the basic infrastructure of youth sports in these (economically challenged) area needs addressing first - for all the reasons you both spoke of.
And the lack of instruction on youth coaching is SO on point. I could site dozens of examples, mostly in teaching the wrong things at the wrong times, in both skills and age-appropriate fitness/performance instruction. The volunteers mean well - of course they do. But they are often doing more harm than good. Just my opinion, of course.
If parents put that travel team money into an education fund instead, they’d have more money when their kid started college than most sports scholarships would offer.
Thank you so much for this!! I am a recently 'retired' D1 athlete and I was very much the product of a parental focus on involvement in recreational and middle/high school sports. While I value my experiences very much, I am one of the only ones of my friends who got to choose my sports and my level of involvement. More and more I've been thinking about what my [distant future] children will play and how I will feel about that, while watching my cousins be coached into my uncle's college sport. This article was so helpful in that dialogue and I will be sending it to my family members who are trying to coach my tiny cousins into future careers.
So interesting! I was not a child athlete in any way (played one season of tee-ball when I was 5 where spoke not one word to my coaches or teammates all season nor did I field a ball or manage to hit past the foul line making my parents feel terrible that I was so miserable so they never even suggested I play a sport after that even though I dont think i was miserable - rather I was too busy imagining my future mlb stardom to focus on the game). And my kids dabbled in sports when they were young. We were fortunate to live in a city that actually had plentiful and relatively affordable recreational sports options. We did gymnastics through parks & rec, softball through PAL and rec soccer. We even coached the soccer teams and were very much the volunteer coaches with zero experience or training that Linda speaks about (my co-coach and I would use YouTube videos of soccer drills on the iPad because neither of us could play soccer! It was a "someone needs to volunteer or we can't have a team" situation). Then we moved when the kids were 9 and 12 and even though we were now in a place with a much lower cost of living overall, the sports leagues were sooo expensive because the only real options for kids their age were competitive! Soccer was not even an possibility because 4th grade was apparently too old to join comp soccer for the first time. My daughter played 3 seasons of club softball and when her 14U season was all about "college showcases" (for 8th graders!!!) she lost all interest. My son had both interest and some level of talent for gymnastics and back home his coach suggested exploring more serious training if he wanted but the local gym had no team development program for boys so he was stuck in very large, co-ed, multi-age classes that he quickly got bored with. It was kind of disappointing but I am also glad we didn't get sucked into the club sports world that eats all your time and money.
I do think there are other activities, though, that can provide similar benefits to sports - especially on the social and personal development side. (Some of them also quite expensive and in need of reform!) Theater programs certainly made my kids learn how to perform under pressure, when to prioritize team success over individual achievement, how to get along with all kinds of interesting personalities, cope with disappointment, etc. Music/band, too, which can be quite competitive.
My children don't participate in team sports, mostly because I don't have any positive experience with them. I've never thought that team sports teach things like kindness, creativity, or welcome--much more you're a failure because of your inherent nature is incapable, you lost the genetic lottery, tough luck. So it is easier to opt out.
As for the "hard lessons" part? My kids have been living through really tough times--practicing self-discipline, overcoming disappointment, being part of team --throughout the pandemic. They don't need artificial opportunities to develop grit or cooperation or whatever. (Our pandemic team is ranked really low in the standings - we live in Arizona.)
Physical activity is really important, though, and finding fun ways to be active every day is something we value. Team sports especially are not set up to be fun for kids or parents.
I'll go against the flow and be an advocate, I suppose. My brother and I did recreational team sports growing up, and I did school sports through middle school. I regret not getting to continue in high school, but we didn't live very close to the school, and the greater time commitments just weren't manageable.
I don't have kids, but my brother has three. They live in a smallish PNW town near a mid-size city. All three kids have gone through the various rec leagues for elementary school kids and it's a good, low-pressure system. If anything the seasons are a bit too short because they end right when the newer kids start understanding how to play.
The oldest, at 14, loves sports and plans to be a three sport athlete at her midsized high school. She's very social and loves that aspect, and she's a middle-of-the-pack athlete that cares more about improving than being the best. She's the kind of kid that gets into her head too much and stresses herself out, so sports are a good way to learn how to manage that tendency (she is aware of this). She's played on tournament basketball teams, but they are a fairly low-key version of that system and she's had good coaches. She gets some unrealistic pressure from the other grandparents who assume she's going to get some big scholarship, and they are the prototypical bad sports "parents" when they attend games. But I think she knows not to worry about them and just wants to learn and have fun, not be a star athlete.
The middle, 11, is what we'd call a "strong-willed child". Playing on a team is tough for her, but also very good for her when she is willing to do it. She's the type of kid who needs adults that are not her parents to push her to challenge herself, to listen (and realize she doesn't know everything), and to work with others rather than tell them what to do. She's doing middle school sports now and I don't know if she'll continue, but I hope she at least sticks with the more individual sports like XC running because it will help her catch up emotionally with her age.
The youngest, 8, loved ball sports since he could walk, but now doesn't want to put effort into things or not be the best at something without having to try. He wants to play the rec sports, though, and they will be a good way of him to learn how to put in effort when he wants to get better at something, and to learn how to cope if he's not the best kid on the team like he was when he was younger and a head taller than the other kids. Without structured activities he'd want to play video games all day. I expect he'll do school sports, though he wants to play football and I really hope that he'll do something else instead. He'll have the build but I don't want the head injuries for him.
Now if any of them weren't interested in team sports at all, they'd not be forced into it, but still encouraged to find something physical to do for exercise and to learn how to work on skills.
It strikes me that a huge problem in youth sports is coaches and sports doctors grooming and sexually assaulting children. If you speak with Linda again I'd be curious what her take is on how to prevent that from happening.
I really appreciate the balance Linda Flanagan provides in this interview. I've been struggling with sports questions as a parent, as well.
I'm also really interested in movements (or the possibility of movements) of parents and fans who could reshape sports. One of my kids is involved in gymnastics. I've watched with interest the development of a National Gymnastics Association which is emerging as an alternative to gymnastics institutions that have been revealed to be devastatingly toxic. The existence of efforts like this give me some hope. It's going to require more than just parents personally reorienting their mindsets to create sports communities that are healthy, encouraging, safe.