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Saturday, April 5, 2014

ARE WE HAVING FUN YET? A FEW LESSONS FROM THE MULTI-BILLION YOUTH SPORTS INDUSTRY

Youth sports has become a Five Billion Dollar per year ($5,000,000.00) industry in America, according to Forbes magazine.  And yet most youth sports coaches are volunteers.  Virtually every parent in America is going to spend some time and money on the youth sports industry, with varying hopes, expectations, and results -- whether it’s travel soccer, Little League, Pop Warner or the myriad club sports out there.  To people from my generation (I was born in 1965, my brother in 1967), the whole concept of paying to play sports would have seemed bizarre when we were growing up. 

My brother and his best friend played stick ball, wall ball, and kick ball at the school yard in their free time, eventually graduating to the hoops at the schoolyard, which were probably not “regulation” size and only occasionally had nets on them.  They didn’t have Air Jordans and there was no Footlocker.  My brother went on to wrestle for middle school and John Jay High School, where he was co captain of the Wrestling team.  His best friend, Roger, went on to be captain of the John Jay Varsity Basketball team, after which he went on to play College Basketball for Auburn University.  Other than Little League, which according to my parents was $15.00 per year, they didn’t do any organized youth sports.  No travel soccer, no travel basketball, no sports clinics, no sports camp.  And yet if the 17-year-old version of my brother were to wrestle off against today’s generation, or 17-year-old Roger (God rest his soul) were to take to the hoops against any kid out there, I guarantee they would be just as competitive, if not more so. 
            So why are we (and yes, I include myself), as parents, obsessed about enrolling our kids in organized youth sports, which now takes up so much of our time and money.  And if we are going to insist on this lifestyle, how is it affecting our kids?  What can we do to make sure they’re getting something out of all this running around?  Mrs. Lo decided to put on her little reporter hat for a while and take to the streets for some input from coaches, parents and kids.  Here’s a roundup of what I learned, the good, the bad, and the ugly:
1.     NEVER, EVER FORCE A KID TO PLAY A SPORT HE/SHE DOESN’T WANT TO PLAY.  Every coach I talked to said this.  Said Coach Kennedy, the senior rowing coach in the Hudson Valley, who has coached crew, swimming, football, volleyball, track and Sumo Wrestling (OK, I made up the last one, I wanted to see if you’re paying attention):  “I don’t care if you were the varsity quarterback of your State Champion football team.  Your son may want to be a figure skater.  And if he does, you need to retire the helmet and pads and get yourself a parka.”  Maybe your grandkids will take up football, you never know.
2.    PARENTS, REMEMBER THAT THE COACHES ARE VOLUNTEERS AND THAT YOU NEED TO VOLUNTEER AS WELL.  Not only are they not getting paid, youth sports coaches are spending their own money to do much of what they are doing.  Football coaches are driving to basketball courts in the City of Newburgh to pick up players and take them to  practice and rowing coaches are buying boats with their own money.  They view their “job” as preparing your kid for the next level in their sport, be it travel soccer, junior varsity football or high school rowing, etc.  They are not paid professional coaches, nor are they babysitters.  If coaches and other parents are volunteering their time and money to make this club happen, you should be too.  As Team Mom, one of the things that irks me most is the parent who will message me to say, “can you give me an idea of what time my child’s race will go off, so I can run in and see it and then go do my own thing?”  No, Lady, I can’t do that, because the rest of us are going to be down here at 5:30 am working the meet and will be here pretty much all day.  It’s all in or all out.
3.    KIDS NEED TO LEARN HOW TO LOSE A GAME.  I have heard this from coaches and parents alike.  Losing is part of the sport and there truly is nothing worse than a young athlete who is a sore loser, except for a coach who is a sore loser or worse, will try to win at any cost.  This is not Texas and we’re not on national television.  It’s just a game, people.  No, really, I assure you, it is not the reason your kid was born, it is just a game.  The sooner we all realize that, the better.
4.    “IF YOU SIGNED UP FOR A TEAM, YOU HAVE TO COMMIT TO IT AND SEE IT THROUGH” DOES NOT ALWAYS APPLY IN YOUTH SPORTS.  This is one of the hardest lessons for parents of my generation to accept. Many years ago, Christian really started to dislike his travel soccer experience.  We were raised to believe that if you make a commitment, you stick to it.  And yes, if you committed to the Varsity Football team and the State Championship depends on your kid, you should stick out the season. But that doesn’t apply to youth sports.  Sometimes, you have to get your kid out of there.  We agonized over the decision, but my husband and I pulled him off the team and organized a neighborhood pickup soccer game.  He played with his friends, had a blast, didn’t have to keep to a schedule and, of course, it was free.  Was he harmed in any way?  No, he loves sports with a passion.
5.    PARENTS, DON’T REQUEST POSTITIONS FOR YOUR PLAYERS.  This is in the Goldbacks Youth Football League handbook and it’s one of Coach Brad’s golden rules.  And here’s what I was told about private high school football:  “We don’t care if someone’s kid was the star running back for their Pee Wee League, or the winningest QB in state history.  If we say he’s a slot receiver, he’s a slot receiver.  Any questions?”  Nope.
6.    COACHES, ARE YOU CUT OUT TO BE A YOUTH SPORTS COACH?:  None of the following hard-to-believe but true stories relate to me or my kids but there is a sordid underbelly to youth sports.  While writing the Blog, I talked to parents and guardians who told me the following: 
·       a guardian who heard the coach on the other team yelling, “take him out, you’ve got to hurt  Number (__) and get him out of the game” and she realized that was her grandson’s number.  She overheard a coach instructing his players to hurt her grandson.  RESULT:  the athlete got kicked out of the game for asking the opposing coach why he was instructing his players to hurt him, but on the up side, the athlete wasn’t injured; he is still active in the sport; 
·       a coach who gave every athlete positive support but singled out this parent’s daughter, a gifted athlete, for negative treatment.  The mom found it heartbreaking.  RESULT:  the girl stopped her sport but has since come back.
·       A coach who refused to get medical treatment for a player who broke his finger and for a player injured on the field. RESULT:  parents had to intervene and seek medical treatment.
·       A coach who told the players to bring in all their First Place trophies, earned before he became a coach.  He then confiscated their trophies saying they “didn’t deserve them.”  RESULT:  the parent pulled the athlete from the team and, although he is a gifted athlete, he no longer participates in the sport.
·       A soccer coach who, after the players lost a game, made them get into a freezing cold swimming pool in cold weather, up to their waists and stay there for 30 minutes as “punishment” for losing the game.  RESULT:  parents pulled their kids from the team but this coach is still coaching.
We give a lot of control over our kids to sports programs but always remember -- this is voluntary.  If your child is experiencing physical, mental or emotional abuse, do not hesitate to pull your kid and report the coach to the League authorities.  There is some crazy (CENSORED) that goes on out there.
7.    FINALLY: IS YOUR KID HAVING FUN?  No really, is he or she having fun? If your answer contains things like, well, he would if we had a different coach, or if she got more playing time, or if he just tried harder, then check yourself for a minute.  Because if your kid is not having fun in YOUTH sports, then maybe this sport you’re doing is not for your kid.  Or this program isn’t for your kid.  Or maybe, just maybe, your kid doesn’t need to be doing sports at all.  Yes, Team Mom, did just say that.  It’s Ok to play outside with your friends, to concentrate on musical theatre, or photography, or basket weaving for that matter.  There will be plenty of time for grinding schedules and hard work later in life.  It’s called being an adult and having a job.  Childhood is a time for fun.  My oldest loves competitive sports and would wither away if I took it away from him.  My youngest loves recreational sports, from rowing to swimming, but has no interest at this time in competing.  And that’s just fine. 
Because in the end, all they really need is a hoop, a stick, a ball.  Maybe some blacktop and some chalk.  The day it stops being fun is the day you need to step up, be a parent, and say thanks for the memories, you can find us on the black top playing hopscotch, in the backyard  catching fireflies, going to the library, making pancakes, and just generally enjoying childhood.
      And that’s how Mrs. Lo sees it.  Have a great day, everyone, and Remember to Count Your Blessings! <3 Mrs. Lo