Archive for August, 2019

Why Your Child Hates Sports

It surprises many to learn that on most measures of well-being today’s youth are the healthiest generation in history. Violent crime against and by young people is historically low. Teen pregnancy and birth rates continue to decline. Most measures of drug and alcohol use among teens and young adults show significant declines from a generation ago. Tobacco use is at a low point. In short, most problems that are a result of choices young people make have shown marked improvement since information on Millennials entered the data sets.

But an important measure of well-being has tracked significantly worse during the Millennial and post-Millennial era:  childhood obesity. According to the CDC, the prevalence of obesity has roughly tripled in the past 40 years. This is a frightful statistic.

This is not new news as many books, documentaries, and scholars have presented possible reasons for the spike in youth obesity. Beyond genetics, there are two likely determinants of obesity: 1) nutrition and 2) physical activity. Discussions of obesity’s “nutritional” causes are fraught with controversy. The food industry involves a lot of interests and money, nutritional science is rarely definitive, and seemingly everyone has their own opinions on what is healthy or unhealthy to eat. The nutritional roots of obesity (while likely very significant) are far from settled.

However, the “physical activity” side of the discussion tends to not be so heated. Nearly everyone agrees that today’s youth aren’t as physically active as they should be. There are likely many causes for this as well, but I believe the way youth sports operate merit some discussion.

When I was young, sports were every bit as important to my life as they became to my Millennial children. The difference is my sports experiences as a child were mostly kid-directed. Almost daily, we gathered in the largest yard in the neighborhood and played whichever sport was in season. It took up an hour or two on most days and sometimes the entire weekend. The biggest difference to today’s youth sports environment is there wasn’t an adult in sight. There were arguments, injuries, and conflicts, all of which got resolved without adult mediation.

Contrast this to today’s youth sports environment. Today’s kids specialize in one sport year-round and from a very young age join travel and elite leagues organized by adults. There is a general dearth of unstructured play time. Correlation and causation are never the same thing but the rise in youth obesity has correlated closely with the rise in youth sports leagues organized by adults. Once adults started making the decisions about sports, our kids got fatter.

As a matter of personal perspective, I have two adult children and I can count six sports (baseball, soccer, ice hockey, track, skiing, cross country) that they played in an adult-organized fashion while growing up. We encountered situations where I had a child who was one of the least talented kids on a team, others where I had a child that was the star of the team, and many others where my child was somewhere in the middle. Between them, my kids were on teams that dominated their leagues and went undefeated, they were on some that lost almost every game, and they were on some teams that both won and lost. I coached for a while and my wife was “team mom” for most teams they were on.

Along the way I noticed that kids seemed to have the most fun when they won just a few more games than they lost. The kids didn’t seem to think it was as fun to dominate the competition and it was even less fun to be constantly on the losing end. 

I remember once when in the car after a hockey game I asked my son what he wanted to happen when he had the puck. He said, “I want to score.” I asked him “suppose you scored every single time you touched the puck. Would that be any fun?” At 10 years old, he didn’t have to think long to say that wouldn’t be very fun at all. But, that is what most hockey dads are hoping will happen.

There seems to be a natural force kids apply to sports equality when adults get out of the way. Left to their own devices, the first things kids will do when choosing up teams is to try to get the teams to be evenly matched. Then, if the game starts to get too one-sided the next thing they will do is swap some players around to balance it out. This seems to be ingrained – nobody teaches kids to do this, but left on their own this is what they tend to do. They will also change the rules of the game to make it more fun.

I’ve encountered many parents who are delusional when it comes to the athletic capabilities of their children. I don’t think I have ever met a dad (including myself) who didn’t think their child was better than he/she really was. We want our kids to succeed of course. But we have to have the right definition of success. Are they having fun? Are they improving? Learning how to work as a team and treat competition with respect? Making friendships? That is what is going to matter down the line.

Far too many parents look to the future too much and don’t let their kids enjoy the moment. They will spend thousands and sacrifice nearly every weekend to send their kid to a camp that might get them noticed by college recruiters. The reality is, their child probably won’t get an athletic scholarship, and if he/she does it probably won’t come close to offsetting the money spent getting him/her to all of the camps and travel league games. Parents also don’t realize that most kids don’t find participating in college sports to be as fun as participating in them was in high school.

When I coached Little League baseball, I used to tell the kids to play catch with their mom or dad every day. I remember a mom once asking me why I was pushing them to do this so much. I told her that playing catch with a baseball in the backyard with your kid is one of the great moments in parenthood. It forces you to talk and listen to your kid. I told her that her son would remember that time with his mom or dad far more than playing on our team.

There are debates over rewards for participation in sports. In my day, you had to win to get the trophy and sometimes you didn’t even get that. Now, kids get trophies for showing up. That is not necessarily a bad thing. As Woody Allen says, “80% of success is showing up.” So, why not reward it?

My youngest son was fortunate to run cross country for a coach that most would classify as a local legend. He has coached the team for 30+ years, has had many state championship teams and individuals, and is widely respected. My favorite memory of him was something I observed when he didn’t know I was looking and it had nothing to do with championships and developing elite athletes.  For the first race of a new season, he took the varsity teams to an out-of-state invitational. The girls team was quite good, and for his 7th (and slowest) runner he brought a freshman girl who was inexperienced and running her very first race. She didn’t do very well and came in about 120th place in the race. I saw the coach come up to her right afterword with a beaming smile on his face. The first thing he said to her was “was that FUN or what?” as he gave her a hug. She smiled, hugged him back and ended up staying on the team for all four years of high school and last weekend (8 years later) I saw her jogging in a local park. She didn’t excel at running in high school, but the coach sparked a lifelong interest in fitness in her.

To me, that signified not just what sports should all be about, but what adults’ role in sports should be all about. We have a real problem with childhood obesity. The cure is to make sports and physical activity more fun, and many times that means getting the adults out of the way.


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