My kids are completely average athletes. They’re pretty decent climbers, they like to run, and they enjoy playing pick-up games with the neighborhood kids. They also tend to trip over their own two feet, miss the ball a bunch of times before finally making contact, and hang back to watch the more aggressive kids play the game. But something in my older son seemed to click about halfway through the current season of soccer. Out of nowhere, he started charging the ball, passing to his teammates, and dribbling up the field to score a few unassisted goals. The first time this happened, my husband and I simultaneously blurted, “Where did that come from?”
After that first unexpected spark, my son continued the season in a similar fashion. The other parents probably didn’t notice—the kid was still no Lionel Messi—but we certainly did. For the first time in a team sport, our son looked like he knew what he was doing out there. Plus, he was actually engaged in the sport itself, not just the opportunity to play outside for an hour with his teammates.
As soon as that exciting switch flipped in my son, I felt a less pleasant switch flip in me. I went from being laidback Focused-on-the-Fun Mom to intense My-Kid’s-Got-Skills-and-I-Need-to-Foster-Them Mom. Suddenly, I found myself considering all the additional soccer opportunities available in our community. Instead of recycling fliers for indoor winter soccer, I was reading them in depth and setting them aside for my husband to see. Instead of asking my son if he’d had fun at his game, I was praising him for a goal he scored. Instead of chatting on the sidelines with the other parents about book fairs and play dates, I was telling them how proud I was of my son’s progress.
Like many parents whose kids play sports, I found myself teetering on the edge of a dangerous and slippery slope.
An article in last Sunday’s Washington Post highlighted the negative consequences of parents like me becoming over-invested in their children’s athletic endeavors, one of a recent spate of stories on the topic. Citing data from the Aspen Institute, the author reported that the number of children ages 6-12 who play team sports has dropped considerably since 2008. That decline is unfortunate, because sports are good for kids. Children who are physically active from an early age are less likely to engage in risky behaviors such as smoking, drug use, and unprotected sex, they are more likely to attend college and enjoy higher wages in their professions, and they are more likely to live long and healthy lives.
Some of the decrease in youth sports participation can be attributed to family financial constraints and reactions to new data on sports-related injuries. But experts believe overzealous parents are also at fault for acting as the catalyst in the shift from recreational play to intense competition, from short eight-week seasons to year-round play of a single sport, and from a focus on learning to a focus on winning. As a consequence, those kids are getting injured and burnt out, and the kids who don’t play year-round are feeling frustrated and inept. The end result is that 70 percent of kids drop out of team sports by age 13.
So why can’t we just be content to let our kids have fun and stay healthy?
One theory states that the reason behind parent-driven youth sports is the desire for status. After all, it’s fun to tell people your kid hit a homerun during the big game, to get positive feedback from the video you posted of his tennis swing, to know that your offspring is measurably better at something than his friends are. You feel good when you support your kid’s progress, when you know he or she is getting a leg up on the competition because you put in the extra time and money. You feel important when you commit to traveling out of state so your kid can enter a dance competition along with other committed kids. You feel guilty when you realize yours is the only child who didn’t attend the pre-season basketball clinic, and you worry that missing those four hours might have messed up his whole season.
We do it all because parenting has become a competition of its own. A knockdown drag-out fight to see whose family pictures get the most likes on Facebook, whose Mother’s Day celebration was the most meaningful, and whose kids look the best on the playing field. And we have to ask ourselves, is that a competition we really care to win?
The fall soccer season is almost over now, and that’s where soccer usually ends for our family. But this year, my son will play nine additional weeks of the sport indoors. As of now, I don’t know if that’s the best decision for him. I don’t know if he’s continuing on in soccer because he loves it, or because he senses it will please his dad and me. I don’t know if he will keep having fun, or if he will tire of the game and ask to try basketball instead.
Either way, I think he’ll be fine, as long as I remember one thing: It’s not about me.
And also, I need to keep my kids away from Peyton Manning.