The Dark Side of Youth Sports

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WILL FERRELL AND ELLIOTT CHO
Photo credit: blog.timesunion.com.

By now, you’ve probably seen the ugly email thread from the coach of a D.C.-area middle school summer lacrosse team. In case you’ve missed it,  the guy unleashes a ridiculous diatribe on a player’s father when he learns of the player’s decision to quit the team. Here are some of the highlights—or rather, lowlights—of the desperate lashing, posted on Deadspin:

“What? Is this a joke? This will be a decision that Ryan regrets for a long time. I doubt it is his decision though. I know it is you trying but failing to control the situation. I will speak to coach Bordley and college coaches immediately and make sure they know they are getting a quitter who is ungrateful and soft who can’t take criticism. You have taken advantage of me and madlax and now you are doing a huge disservice to your son…” 

While the email reveals the coach’s desperation, it also shows how manipulative he is. Clearly, he knows how to hurt the player’s parent. Going right for the jugular, he threatens to derail the future lacrosse career of the parent’s adolescent son.

For scores of today’s youth sports players, their parents, and their coaches, that pie-in-the-sky goal is what it all boils down to. Never mind that fewer than two percent of high school varsity athletes gets an athletic college scholarship, and that less than five percent of high school athletes plays an intercollegiate sport in college, reports Mark Hyman, a Baltimore-based journalist and educator who’s written three books about kids and sports, including Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids.

“Many of us are chasing that dream. It’s absurd,” Hyman said.

Not only does the dream of playing high-level college sports remain elusive for most young athletes, but the wear and tear—physically, and from emotionally abusive coaches who too many kids endure along the journey—can leave young players with indelible scars. Some lucky kids do continue to play sports on their own terms. Others hang in there because sports are the only thing they know. Far too many kids quit sports altogether.

In fact, 70 percent of all kids drop out of youth sports by age 13, according to research published on the Safe Kids USA website.  It’s a safe bet to say that one nutty Baltimore baseball coach is responsible for cutting short participation in youth sports for some of his former players. I know of one for certain. And while there will be no names revealed here, I will say that this about the coach whose 11-year-old players counted him dropping the “f-bomb” seven times in one inning: he coached recreational baseball—note, not travel or club ball—in  a popular city league for several years. This coach managed to make a mockery of the rec league’s motto: “We strive to provide a fun, positive and learning experience for all who are a part of the league.”

While it might be surprising to hear that a rec league coach frequently spiraled into tantrum-like tirades, bad behavior appears to be more readily tolerated among coaches of more elite ‘club’ sports teams. One such girls’ lacrosse club in Baltimore, known as a feeder for Division 1 college lacrosse schools, seems to think it’s okay to belittle its players who haven’t been actively recruited to play college lacrosse by the time they’ve concluded tenth grade.

Maybe the coaches are hoping the girls—whom, according to one of the player’s mothers, are routinely chided as being fat and lazy—will depart, making way for more ‘eligible’ players with the potential to maintain the program’s reputation for churning out D-1 lacrosse players. But, because these girls have been on this path for so long, often since the time they were barely big enough to hold a lacrosse stick in their little hands, they can’t quit now. It is the only road they know.

That’s just one of the downsides of ‘specializing’ in a sport at a young age. True, not every kid who commits him- or herself fully to a sport at the age of 9, 10, or 11 will actually realize the end goal of playing professionally or even competitively in college. There also are overuse injuries, which are far more prevalent among kids playing only one sport year all year. Perhaps most importantly, the biggest detriment to kids who dedicate themselves to a single sport—often at the urging of coaches who, by the way, typically have their own interests at stake; not their players’—is the other activities these youths miss out on.

That almost happened to a kid who happens to be a neighbor of mine, and whom I’ve had the privilege of watching, for the past ten years, grow happily into a talented three-varsity high school athlete. The story could have turned out much differently.

A natural athlete, the kid swam competitively in his pre-teen years and displayed a lot of potential. It wasn’t long before his coach was penalizing him for playing other sports by excluding him from certain prestigious swim meets, despite the kid having ‘qualifying times,’ meaning he was fast enough to enter the meets.

Once, after having been on a week-long family vacation, the kid almost refused to get out of the car and into swim practice, for fear of the verbal abuse he knew would ensue for missing practice. Shortly afterward, he went from swimming four to six days a week and competing at an extremely high level to quitting swimming altogether.

Choosing her words carefully, the boy’s mother reflects on the journey that ended for her son before it consumed him: “I believe that, in many sports programs, coaches are basically backing kids into a corner to commit. I feel like it’s very detrimental.”

Ironically, youth sports start out innocently for most families. But it’s not uncommon to get wrapped up, inadvertently, in a coach’s or a league’s broader agenda and ambitions. The complicated head trip that can take over when a kid is 11, 12, or 13 often is unfathomable when a tiny 6-year-old first takes to the swimming block, the batter’s box, or the lacrosse field. But it’s not inevitable.

Hyman offers some sound advice for parents as they enter the potentially wonderful, sometimes warped, world of youth sports. “Understand that you do have choices. Shop for a league that meets the needs of you and your family,” he says. “What we should be doing is focusing on what’s attainable through sports—developing a life-long interest in physical activity.”



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2 COMMENTS

  1. Great article. I can’t tell you how many discussions I’ve had about this recently. It’s great to see it in print.

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