My daughters love to swim, and we ran out of lessons at our local Y, so I thought I’d try to find a swim team. They’re only 6 and 9, so what I was looking for was a local rec situation that offered low-stakes camaraderie and regular exercise. They’re strong swimmers but probably not future Olympians, and I also want a life: I’m not interested in running up and down the East Coast every weekend to compete, like parents with kids on tour groups.
The relaxed sports experience I wanted for my kids seems to be almost non-existent. There was nothing like the delicious football league of my youth. All I could find were intense groups that practiced several times a week. The only regular swimming option for my kids is lessons, which are expensive, and you have to sign up on the first day of registration or you’re out of luck.
I thought it might be a New York City thing; there are often waiting lists for all kinds of children’s activities because there is so much demand and not enough supply. But it seems to be a cross-country problem: When I tweeted my frustration, many people responded by describing similar experiences, including one woman who suggested she had to sacrifice a goat in Portland, Ore., to get her kids into swimming lessons. .
This saddens me for many reasons. It’s great that sport was an important part of my teenage and young life. I wasn’t good enough to play in college, but I played soccer and field hockey my senior year in high school. It always felt like a respite from teenage drama, and provided structure and calm even on the worst days. Being part of a team taught me many lessons, not the least of which is the obvious benefits of showing up on time and ready to play, no matter what happens in the game.
But as Linda Flanagan explains in her new book, “Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania Are Ruining Kids’ Sports – and Why It Matters,” the problem is systemic. At its core, in recent decades, “children’s sports stopped being for children”. There are fewer low-cost options, the amount of time parents spend in sports has increased, and children from low-income families are less likely to play. Instead, youth sports are about making money from adults and fueling what some economists call the “carpet rat race” — middle- and upper-middle-class competition to get kids into college and secure their futures.
The following is an abridged and edited version of an interview with Flanagan, a journalist and runner who coached a high school girls’ cross country team. It explains how we got to this point and what good can be done from youth sports.
Jessica Grose: I was excited to read your book because it explained something I’ve noticed since my kids started playing sports: the lack of local community opportunities. I’d love to hear your take on where these options went.
Linda Flanagan: I identify three main reasons why children’s sports have moved from this low-key, quiet, corner game to this lively, expensive, privatized version. The first is money.
The seeds for this were planted in the 70’s when we had a bad recession and public funding for parks and recreation departments was cut. Then girls’ sports really took off in the ’90s, so there was more demand.
Also in the 90s, Disney built the Wide World of Sports Complex, which was a huge success. It launched the beginning of travel sports and sports tourism, because Disney’s success was then seen by other communities: if they can build a sports complex, why don’t we try it in our small town? Those are the places where they are pulling in teams and tournaments and competitions, where these private organizations have their matches.
Then, in 2008, we had another recession, which led to a further decline in public spending and a realization among private companies that they can make money from this.
I was amazed at how much money is being made. The figure you cite in the book was estimated at $19.2 billion, which is more than the value of the N.F.L. And what really surprised me was that since 2010, spending has increased by 90 percent. I know you just mentioned the 2008 recession, which cut more funding from sports streams, but what else accelerated that money being spent?
I spoke to the woman who did the research about this, and she said that the increase is due to a lot of software and technology investments. Today there are companies that provide software for the leagues, and organization and videography to send tape of your little superstar to college coaches. He said the next step for this sports tourism is to upgrade the facilities so that parents won’t go to a stadium in the middle of nowhere, but maybe have a nice cafe and comfortable seating.
In the book, you say that all the money in the system corrupts the benefits of sports, like character building. I would love to hear you talk more about it.
As soon as you add money, the stakes change. I think one of the most important pieces of research in the book comes from Utah State’s Families in Sport Lab. They discovered that the more parents spend on their child’s sports, the less the child enjoys it and the more pressure he feels. Because of this youth sports industry, there is now this pressure for kids to specialize at a young age or choose a sport and play as long as possible.
Sports doctors and psychologists agree that this is not healthy. Developmentally it’s not in the child’s best interest, but because there’s this industry that’s selling that message, what happened to a lot of kids in childhood is to play a sport all the time. Then if you can’t cut it, or if you hate it, or if you don’t want to swim five days a week when they’re 6, just leave it. This is how he has ruined everything that is wonderful.
I think it’s also because there’s a lack of less lively options. You feel like you play this game to get your child started on lacrosse at age 5 or they will never play. And that’s awesome, isn’t it?
Yes, that’s right. It does so. There is another huge cause of all this that we don’t talk about when we talk about money. One of the most interesting parts of my research for the book was trying to understand how the whole notion of parenthood changed. I’m the youngest of five, and I said, “Mom, how did you have five children?” He said, “Oh, I don’t know, Linda. We didn’t think so much back then.”
To understand how we went from children being “our employees to our bosses,” as Jennifer Senior put it [in “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood”] – I love that turn of phrase because it’s a power dynamic. moved It used to be parents who had life, and children had to adapt to this change, starting in the 70s, 80s and 90s, where children became the center of adults’ lives.
Now, parents believe that we should do everything in our power to ensure that our children have every advantage, and lead a happy and financially fulfilling life. If we don’t, they will probably fail. Bottom line, it’s a sign of a good parent to spend $10,000 on travel lacrosse or travel soccer because you’re doing what you need to do to help prepare your child. That’s the overlay behind all of this, this mentality that it’s your responsibility as a parent to do this and if you don’t you’re being a bad parent. I think a lot of parents feel that guilt if they leave these things out.
I find it strange that not all kids will be great athletes. You talk about your three children in the book, and only one really seemed to have that spark. I imagine a lot of kids are being pushed when they aren’t particularly interested or have no skill level.
yes i know Well, that’s the other reality. We can’t shape them as much as we’d like to think.
We’ve talked about a lot of negatives, but when I want to give up on the tape, I still hear the voice of my high school field hockey coach, Barb, in my head saying, “Finish strong.” I feel like I learned that kind of resilience more from playing sports than anything else I did in my young life. What were some other positive effects you saw in youth sports?
Towards the end of my coaching career, I started sitting down with the team at the end of the season and asking: What did you learn here that you can apply to the rest of your life? Because in a perfect world, sports aren’t just about that particular season or game. You have to take something from it to grow. And their answers were so wonderful. One girl who always had trouble running said she learned the power of baby steps because when we started she couldn’t run very far, and by the end she could run a 5K. Other girls said they learned they were stronger than they thought. They learned: I can do this. I didn’t know I could, and I can.
In her newsletter last year, Anne Helen Petersen made the case against children’s sports. See the article : Presentation of the inclusive autumn sports league in the Valley. He also interviewed Flanagan this month, and he is more skeptical than I am about whether children’s sports can be saved.
The disparity in the lack of local community opportunities for play has dire consequences: As my colleague Mara Gay pointed out earlier this year, New York City canceled free swim lessons. Forget a swim team: many kids don’t learn to swim and don’t have access to water on the hottest days.
In 2018, my colleague Jane Brody discussed how to prevent smoking in youth sports. “In a prospective study of nearly 12,000 youth with highly detailed histories of sports-related injuries,” the experts wrote, “early specialization in baseball, cheerleading, and gymnastics increased injury risk among boys, and specialization in running, swimming, and soccer and volleyball, as well as cheerleading and gymnastics also, they increased the risk of injury among girls.”
Do the Scandinavians have an answer to, yet again, an American parenting problem? Writing in The Times in 2019, Tom Farrey asked: “Is Norway overreacting in youth sports?”
Parenting can be a grind. On the same subject : Mental health, teenage births: 5 takeaways from data on Ohio children. Let’s celebrate the small victories.
My daughter has been struggling with morning drops, but the routines help. We have matching heart necklaces, so we share hugs and hearts, clicking our necklace charms together before we leave. This morning, we all forgot our necklaces. Instead of panicking when she started crying, I grabbed a pen and drew little hearts on my thumbs. It worked and he left smiling with his teacher.
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