Keeping Score

Some Tips For Youth Sports Parents

A new book acts as a resource.

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We’ve known for a long time that the youth sports environment is toxic. You hear the news stories – in Colorado this summer, for example, a brawl broke out amongst parents following a baseball game for 10-year-olds. A new book — Beyond Winning: Smart Parenting In a Toxic Sports Environment — aims to help parents manage the youth sports circus, and offer some perspective for their children. One of the book’s authors, youth sports consultant Luis Fernando Llosa — a former investigative reporter for Sports Illustrated — answered some questions via email.

Is there any new idea, factoid or piece of research in this book that will help parents navigate this world?

We tackle burning questions posed by exasperated parents and report on the overwhelming toxicity in youth sports. But more importantly we offer a blue print for change with tips, lists and concrete solutions–the tools every parent needs to navigate what is a truly problematic, stress-inducing sports scene.

For example, parents have to re-examine their own sports biography, to be aware of emotional triggers that might set them off. So ask yourself now: what were your worst sports experiences? Did you get jealous when other kids had success? Did you overreact to bad calls by referees and umpires? Tell yourself: as a parent, I have to avoid this behavior.

Also, we’ve found that most kids have more fun, productive sports experiences when parents aren’t “sportscasters,” talking all the time. Be a witness and a supporter. A rule of thumb, to start: trying cutting your chatter by 50 percent. The results, we believe, will be very positive.

With the cost of college always escalating, financial pressures drive the environment – the athletic scholarship is a huge carrot, so parents will do anything to give their kids an edge. How do you fight this?

That’s a huge question. And there’s no pat answer. But the premise that starting your child early, specializing in a particular sport, and tossing tens of thousands of dollars at her athletic development (for trainers, camps, elite travel teams) will ensure that she lands an NCAA Division I scholarship is, well, simply ludicrous. Hundreds of parents we interviewed spend anywhere between $5,000 and $20,000 per year on their kids’ sports activities each year. Yet barely 2% of high school athletes land Division I scholarships. The average sum of such grants: $11,000. Instead of spending all that money chasing a dream, nurture your child’s athletic life healthily and sock all cash away into a college fund. It’s nonsensical to shove your little girl into a wacky world jam-packed with parents who scream, scramble and scrum like bickering sea gulls, fighting for scraps: extra playing time, special attention from coaches, or a coveted spot on an elite travel squad. The economics just don’t work. And the emotional and physical toll can be stratospheric for the entire family.

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You hear a lot about specialization in youth sports — parents and coaches insist that kids focus on one sport at an earlier and earlier age. Is this a real trend? Is this a good thing? Why or why not?

It’s not a trend. It’s a tsunami. And just the opposite of what America’s kids need. For starters, children nowadays are thrust into hyper-organized, command-oriented team settings as early as age four or five. It’s just too much, too soon. What youngsters should be engaged in up to the age of eleven or twelve is free play and fun, semi-structured activities which help them develop creativity, self-direction, and adaptability. These are key skills they will need not only to become better athletes but, more significantly, to navigate a frenetic, ever-evolving adult world. Does early training breed champions? The most successful Brazilian soccer stars and Dominican baseball major leaguers did not don uniforms and get drilled three times a week and twice on weekends when they were six. They horsed around in favela alleys and dusty barrio streets with friends of all ages, perfecting cool tricks with old balls and honing hand-eye coordination with bottle caps and broom handles. Early specialization is not a solution. It’s a disaster. It has led to a pandemic of physical woes (wear-and-tear injuries, brain concussions, etc.). What’s more: the pressure kids feel when they are judged and criticized incessantly by mom, dad, coach and community, has driven three out of four kids out of youth sports by the tender age of thirteen.

What do you hope parents take away from this book?

Parents who read Beyond Winning will realize that there are tens of thousands of like-minded fellow parents out there, fed up with what’s happening on the fields and courts of America. In an age of group protest, of self-propelled change spurred by social networking technology, we can and must do better. Things can be different. Organizations like Whole Child Sports are part of a burgeoning grassroots movement that supports parents who wish to find healthier, more age-appropriate ways for their children to experience sports. The win-at-all-cost mentality which has metastasized in our culture, has spawned the Lance Armstrongs and A-Rods of the world. We hope to provide a foundation upon which parents can step up and demand change, and shake up the status quo.

(MORE: How Youth Sports Warp Common Sense)