Every fall, there’s a bright shining sports moment when the four most competitive, most watched professional men’s games are simultaneously played in the United States. Sadly for Mets fans, gloriously for the Royals, the World Series ended Sunday night. But basketball, hockey, and football offer daily consolation.
As so many of us, alongside our kids, cheer for our favorite teams in the stands and on television, many parents wonder: will my son or daughter ever play at this level?
For almost all of us, the answer is no. Twenty six million American kids ages 6 to 17 play team sports. Only eight million play high school sports. About 460,000 – far less than one in ten — play in college.
Of male college athletes pursuing their respective sports, only 6.8% of hockey players will be drafted by the NHL. Other athletes face an even narrower sluicegate: 1.6% of college football players will be drafted by the NFL. 1.4% of male college soccer players will by drafted by Major League Soccer. Only 1.2% of male college basketball players will be drafted by the NBA.
Most of us want our kids to dream big. Playing a favorite sport at the college, Olympic or pro level is a wonderful goal to shoot for, a great motivation, a lofty aspiration. But how, and when, do we temper those hopes with reality? What are the upsides for parents, coaches, and kids who recognize that the value of playing competitive sports has nothing to do with a college scholarship or pro athlete contract?
Disturbingly, it seems that many parents and coaches are focusing on funneling kids into elite travel teams at the expense of playing a variety of sports. This marks a significant change from the more well-rounded “play lots of sports” approach that shaped many of our childhoods. In fact, total kids’ sports participation has plummeted 10 percent in recent years, largely because of parental and coaching pressure on individual kids to choose a single sport to play year-round.
Research shows that kids love sports for the team dynamics and positive coaching, the challenge of trying hard, the opportunity to learn, and most of all, to have fun. Very low on the list is winning, being the best on their squad, making a travel team, or being classified as an “elite” athlete.
Seventy percent of children quit playing sports by age 13.
The number one reason? It’s not fun.
“We no longer value participation,” says Mark Hyman, professor of sports management at George Washington University. “We value excellence.”
This trend is a loss for everyone.
Now, I have a son who plays college basketball. I understand the parental commitment, and joy, that comes with seeing a child achieve his or her athletic dream. But the character development my son gained from playing AAU, rec, and school basketball from age seven through 18 is the real gift. He learned grit. The value of hard work. How to manage his time when he played for three basketball teams at once. How to eat a nutritious dinner in the car. How to learn from coaches with diverse management styles. The sweaty joy of the huddle. Just as important as learning how to win, my son learned how to lose: I saw him cry on the court at 7…and again at 18. He loves the game that much.
I would never want to take the lessons of youth sports away from my son, or any kid, by telling a child that the only measure of success in sports is making it to an elite team, winning the state championship, getting a college scholarship, or that lottery ticket we call a pro sports contract. But I also never told my son he wouldn’t make it to the NBA. That wasn’t my role either. A big part of the lesson for my son from youth sports was realizing both his potential, and limits, as an athlete.
Because, ironically, youth sports is not about winning. Youth sports is fundamentally about losing. The vast majority of youth athletes lose at the game of elite sports competition, either in high school, college, or afterwards. The game invariably ends for almost every one of our kids.
But life – for us and our children – continues long after the final buzzer. Maybe we all need to step back from the sidelines and exalt the inherent value of teamwork and the thrill of competition. That’s the real lesson of youth sports.