The Cesspool: Why Youth Sports Tend to Suck

Last weekend, I had the great joy of being a judge at the 2013 DC, Maryland and Virginia Louder than a Bomb teen poetry slam competition. For those who don’t know how Louder than a Bomb works, area high schools organize teams who perform in front of an audience of family, friends, fans and, of course, the other competing poets. It’s raucous, intense, and when the emotional weight of a poem connects with a crowd, the adrenaline can suck the air out of a room.

As I was watching these young people unfurl their intense emotional discourses, the sportswriter in me began to ponder what was truly radical about the proceedings. It wasn’t the content of the poems as much as the content of the event itself. Like any great athletic contest, I was seeing the feel of competition push participants to new heights. I saw teams bonding, playing off one another, and working together like one of those Wade-to-LeBron-to-Wade-to-LeBron fast breaks. But I also witnessed an atmosphere that was genuinely supportive, cooperative, and spoke to the best angels of that oft-abused trope known as “sportsmanship.” As I watched this unfold, I asked myself, “Why can’t youth sports be like this?” Yes, it’s true that some teams are fun, some children have terrific experiences and access to youth sports should be universal. But overall, youth sports, to quote my neighbor’s 11-year-old kid, “straight sucks.” Why do 70 percent of kids quit youth sports by age 13? Why do parents get so unbelievably nasty? Why, and this is the most serious point, can it turn suddenly violent?

The day I was judging poets, a soccer referee in Utah, Ricardo Portillo, died a week after being punched in the face by a 17-year-old player because he didn’t like a call that Portillo made on a corner kick. Ricardo’s daughter Johana Portillo told the Associated Press, “Five years ago, a player upset with a call broke his ribs. A few years before that, a player broke his leg. Other referees have been hurt, too.”

What in the blue hell is going on here? I spoke with Joe Ehrmann, former NFL player, pastor and founder of Coach for America. Ehrmann has devoted his life to fighting this societal tide and making youth sports and coaching a positive experience for children. He said to me, “My belief is that while youth sports originated to train, nurture and guide children into adulthood many programs/coaches are using them to meet the needs of adults at the expense of kids. Sports should be a tool to help children become whole and healthy adults who can build relationships and contribute as citizens, but the social contract between adults protecting and providing for the needs of children [instead of their own needs] is broken.” (My emphasis.)

This idea that youth sports has become something that fulfills the needs of adults as opposed to children was backed up by a statistic sent to me by Mark Hyman, author of the highly recommended book, Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession with Youth Sports. He wrote me, “Approximately half of all reported youth sports injuries are the result of overuse”—caused by kids starting too young in sports, specializing in one sport too early, and training too intensely. “Before the adult-supervised era of kids’ sports, there were no overuse injuries.” (My emphasis.)

Mark wrote another book, also highly recommended, called The Most Expensive Game in Town: The Rising Cost of Youth Sports and the Toll on Today’s Families. This book, for me, is a Rosetta stone for understanding why youth sports have become so unbearable for so many.

Organized sports in this country are now a trillion-dollar business—as one marketer says, “from the womb to the tomb.” This is not an exaggeration. There are companies that make videos with names like Athletic Baby and Baby Goes Pro. There are gymnasiums for newborns with an eye on getting them to the pros. There are personal trainers for babies as young as six months. Poor and working-class families of every ethnicity have long seen sports as a ticket out of poverty. But now the financial crunch is on middle-class families as well. Their goal is less the pros than, in an era of $50,000 tuitions and crushing student loans, a college scholarship. Parents see their children as competing against other boys and girls, from the time their kids are big enough to pick up a ball. But to even get in the scholarship pipeline, unlike in decades past, playing for your school is not enough. You need to be a part of a traveling team. You need to have the right equipment. As the overwhelming majority of families are now headed by two working adults, you need to have parents willing to sacrifice scarce leisure time or work hours to attend games. As Mark Hyman describes, these families are not wealthy. Instead, they’re making an investment that needs to pay off, which creates a powder keg of pressure on very young kids.

I asked John Carlos, the great 1968 Olympian, who has also worked as a guidance counselor in public schools for over two decades, why youth sports are so toxic for so many. He said, “The problem is the system. It’s a system where everyone wants to get over on kids. Yes, the parents make these bad choices, but when you’re in that kind of cesspool, all you can really see is… you know. You know what you see in a cesspool. It’s like a kid can’t just be a kid anymore.”

That last line is the key. Profiteering and childhood, whether we are talking about youth sports or charter schools, are a toxic mix. It’s creepy enough that the representatives of big business are oozing around the playground and judging youth sports as an underdeveloped “opportunity.” It’s time to get their priorities off the playing field and fight for space so kids can be kids. If we can link this to a movement of fighting for price controls on college tuitions, that will be music to many a parents’ ears.

9 Reader Comments | Add a comment

not that i'm disagreeing with the stated positions,

but isn't age 13 pretty much a natural line of demarcation for when there would be a drop-off in youth sports participation? i would imagine that due to puberty kicking in, this would be the time that high performing athletes start separating from the pack. not to mention age 13 coincides with the transition to organized high school sports and fewer existing non-school leagues.

All work and no play...

I see DZ's point about "organized" youth sports. To answer DZ's question why 70% of kids quit, I would attribute that to kids wanting to play their sports and not working at it. Somewhere between 10-13 years old(+/-2) kids are transitioned to work at their sports to hone their skills. They are told when/where/and how to play their sport. They have to improve(or work) at the fundamentals rather than just play.

Perhaps this emphasis on working at the game explains the growth of video games. The kids can dictate when/where/and how to play the game which dispenses with adult supervision.

I would also like to know if that 70% rate applies to other countries. Certainly some adults project themselves way too much in youth sports, but I still feel the bigger factor is working at the game instead of playing it.

youth sports

The 'cesspool' is the never ending ego displays of loser role model professional athletes who we are endlessly subjected to by the media. After years of exposure in formative years, what's a young athlete supposed to admire, and then become?

Youth Sports

MAD Magazine fifty years ago made the same point, that youth sports now exist to feed the needs of adults. What a sad mess.

Youth Sports

MAD Magazine fifty years ago made the same point, that youth sports now exist to feed the needs of adults. What a sad mess.

Capitalism and Competition

Capitalism loves competition when it is the working class competing fiercely for the few college scholarships and the few decent paying jobs; but then the capitalist elite seek a monopoly when it comes to dominating markets and politics. Capitalism everywhere is winner take all and loser be damned. Nothing will change in this regard. In fact, it is going to get much, much worse as global capitalism continues to decay.

Youth Sports

It is true that as kids enter their teenage years, the more exceptionally gifted tend to distance themselves from the pack in terms of what they are able to do. Yet is that a reason for the others, some of whom remain quite talented, to leave not only organized sports, but in this day and age, even casual, regular playing as well? I think not. Yet there is a bigger problem here as well. The erosion of communities and the parallel emergence of assorted pipelines to big time college and eventually pro play work together to constrain youth sports in general.

Thank you

This article hits at the heart of what I am currently trying to avoid happening with the youth sports in my area. Unfortunately there is no easy answer. If youth sports is about as, one commenter says, "...high performing athletes start separating from the pack." then we would eventually not have a full team below a college level. The subject of youth athletics should not be about "thinning the herd" so the cream can rise to the top, rather it should be about development of all student athletes. Youth athletics, especially through the middle school years, should be about engaging the student athlete and helping them develop their love of the sport and more importantly, their character. It is unfortunate and sad that many coaches understand the game but seem to be incapable or unwilling to work with the athletes without either breaking them down emotionally, or pushing them to a point where the child no longer cares for the sport they once loved. The desire to win is woven into our psyches from birth in this culture and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that. But, what are the consequences of losing a student athlete because they were convinced that their best wasn't good enough or unless they were winning there was no point in playing? How does this help positively influence a child to become a better player and build character? Parents and youth coaches need to take the time to examine their methods and go beyond just an understanding of the game. If we, as youth coaches, don't take the time to encourage, engage and guide these young people beyond the win and loss columns then we have failed the child, failed the sport and failed as coaches. If you want a child to "work harder" in practice and get better, then help them love what they are doing and they will respond.

trouble

In 25 years Youth leagues will be like comic book readership is today. Let me explain in teh 1950's heck in the 80's monthly sales of DC/marvel books were in the millions, no average sales are 50,000 a month. Why because like sports they got a case of the HARDS and stopped being about the kids.

Comics are now hard to get because local drug stores will not stock them because the damage easily and profit margins are thin.

hard to understand, to understan a super hero title one must go through a college course on 50 years of superhero trivia jsut to get a grasp of what is going on.

CONTENT many of these books have content that is of a PG-13 to soft R making the books not something you want a 8 year old reading.

SPORTS are getting like that now, too hard for the kids bodies and minds and too hard on the parents mentally and financially. It is going to go from a mass market to a NICHE market if they keep this up.

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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