Kathleen Wrigley: Kids Sports Can Be A Roller Coaster


Have you ever stood on the platform of a gigantic, corkscrew turning, upside-down, backwards roller coaster wondering why anyone would want to relinquish control to this degree. Throngs of people line up behind you, nudging you into your seat. The conductor pulls the restraint, and you brace yourself. You start slowly. Then without warning you’re defying gravity at an unreasonable velocity and you have no choice but to ride it out.

I hate roller coasters.

You might think it’s a stretch to compare a soaring coaster to youth athletics. And maybe I am overemphasizing—just a bit—to make my point. But organized sports FOR KIDS have changed. From enormous time commitments and pressures to perform, to over-involved parenting, the intensity with which youth athletics operates has spun out of control. The consequences are real and it starts at very young ages. Our family is fairly new to this level of “play.” Every parent I’ve talked to agrees that these “extracurricular” activities are stretching too far, but they feel powerless. Our kids want to play, so we’re all strapped in for the ride.

Like a lot of boys, our ten-year-old loves anything that involves a uniform and a ball. His chest swells with pride. He sleeps in his basketball jersey and has attempted—on one occasion—to wear it to church. Last year he wore his football gear and pads to piano lessons because practice immediately followed his lesson. He is proud and excited to be part of a team—any team—and he’s built good friendships with his teammates. He is not afraid to work hard, and often uses his spare time to swing, swoosh, or sprint for extra practice.

We all recognize the valuable lessons of participating in organized sports. The benefits are plentiful: physical activity, boosting self-esteem, a sense of belonging, learning good sportsmanship, academic success, pride, discipline. Sign me up, right?

Here comes the BUT…I’m all for working hard and keeping score. That’s life. There are winners and losers. And there are good lessons in both. BUT the level of intensity for these “extra-curricular” activities may be leading us down a path to a whole host of problems. Youth sports and the passion for competing has some coaches and parents overlooking the fundamental benefits of these activities, thus putting undue mental and physical stress on their young players.

The pressures of performing and the time commitments are remarkable for these young athletes. The practice time alone makes it difficult for parents to balance or manage other important things like school work, family time, involvement in any other activity, down time, or even dinner together. For instance, football—for our eleven-year-old—is four days a week, two hours a day, even during the steamy August temperatures that closed schools across the state. I’m not a coach or a doctor; maybe it IS necessary to make kids sprint in full gear [with helmets] in 100-degree temperatures. But it’s a bit excessive to this mom. And judging by how many kids were sick [some throwing up or crying], it was too much for these ten-year-old athletes, too.

The increased intensity level of athletics at a young age can also be seen by watching some parents. Some get so caught up in their children’s sports that they cause problems. I watched a father admonish his son from the bleachers for being out of position, not taking shots, not using the backboard, and not being aggressive enough during a basketball game. At one point his nine-year-old boy stood center-court, fists clenched, and responded to dad’s criticisms through clenched teeth: I’m.Try.Ing.

The gymnasium fell silent—despite the other four games being played. Or maybe it was all I heard. I’ve gotten to know this dad. He is a good man. He’s a former college athlete and fiercely competitive. He’s also a doting father who adores his son. And his jabs are squarely directed toward his own child, not any of the other athletes, coaches, or umpires. Still…

We’ve all heard news stories about parents—in other places, not here—fighting in stands, getting kicked out of games, and acting inappropriately. Youth sports have become so intense, so competitive, and so invasive in our lives that parents—good parents— get swept up in the roller coaster ride and forget that this is not our ride.

Yet this must be a trending problem. Why else would parents be required to sign a parental-behavior contract with the baseball league? Parents have to promise to behave appropriately and respect the umpire’s authority, along with a host of other directives for parents to abide by … what? The contract reminds guardians: “The goal is to instill ideals of good sportsmanship, teamwork, and respect for authority, while learning, playing and enjoying baseball.”

The baseball season was fun. The boys played well as a team, and made it to the championship game. Patrick’s team lost, but rebounded quickly when their coach’s wife opened a cooler full of water balloons. Each player took home a second-place trophy and splashed in the glory of a water-balloon fight. It took them about 30 seconds to get over their loss.

So I was perplexed by the email message we received that night. The baseball league’s board members called a mandatory meeting for parents. The leaders of the league announced that because of several parents’ behavior during and after that game, two volunteer umpires quit the league…for good. They were treated so poorly that they walked off the field after the game, called a board member, and quit on the spot. Who can blame them?

The majority of the parents listened politely during the meeting, but a few pushed back and insisted the board “hire” umpires or “find some with thicker backbones.” True story. And sad. Who loses here? Our children.

Talk about the corkscrew, backward turns of a roller coaster. Are we negating the valuable lessons that youth sports are meant to instill in our kids: to have fun, to be respectful, to be good sports, to manage and balance their time—including family time? Are these little leaguers having fun or is that beside the point now? Are we stressing them out? Embarrassing them? There is real angst and pressure associated with the intensity of some youth athletics today.

These kids want to perform for their coaches. They often look up to them. They want to play. They watch every move that parents and coaches make. Every disgruntled reaction is digested. Every criticism we yell to the umpires is heard. Then they mimic us.

Our generation is more involved in their kids’ lives than ever before. And that’s good. But it may be time to balance our immersion.

This is their ride. Not the coaches’. Nor the parents’. Let them play. Let them win. Let them lose. Let them feel the unfairness of what they perceive to be a bad call. These are lifelong lessons.

It seems the movement towards intense youth sports is beyond my reach and my kids want to play, so I guess we’ll stay seated, tighten our belts, and hold on for dear life.

Occasionally parents need to remind each other that we are the gatekeepers of our children. We set the boundaries for our families, and those limits are important teaching moments, too. Like the speed of a roller coaster, time soars, and before we know it, our children are adults and every example we set for them now matters in their future lives. Be the good sportsmen that we want our kids to be. Encourage them, love them, and—win, lose, or twirl—let them ride it out.