When Sports Become a Metaphor, but Kids are Paying Real Dues

I saw a Facebook post recently in which a parent shared reasons why they choose to involve their children in sports. I thought it brought up some interesting points about why we make the choices we do. Someone had asked this parent, “Why do you pay so much money for your kids to do all their sports?” To which they provided an extensive list of answers, including: 


“I pay for those moments when my kids become so tired they want to quit but don’t.”


“I pay for my kids to learn to be disciplined, focused and dedicated.”


“I pay for my kids to learn that it takes hours and hours, years and years of hard work and practice to create a champion and that success does not happen overnight.”


There were many other items on the list detailing character qualities, personal discipline practices, and social and health benefits to be gained through involvement in organized sports, none of which I would argue with. In fact, I have a rather favorable view of sports and their potential to assist some kids in learning discipline, perseverance, teamwork, healthy lifestyle choices, etc. 


At the moment what I want to focus on isn’t whether sports are good or bad, or whether your kids or anyone else’s should be involved in them and to what degree. What I found particularly interesting about this parent’s post was the choice they made to turn the practice of a sport into a metaphor for character growth and development, and then to treat the original question about why they pay so much as though it were directed toward a broader set of values, almost as if someone had asked them “Why do you bother teaching your children the value of discipline and good character?”


Which wasn’t the original question at all. 


This parent’s answer to the original question very well may be, broadly stated, “I pay for sports because I see this whole list of benefits and I think it’s worth it.” That’s a perfectly legitimate answer. But what gnaws at me a little—what I think their answer fails to address in the way they presented it—is the possibility that all those same benefits may be had through alternative pursuits, perhaps ones that don’t cost as much. Kids don’t need sports to make friends and grow in character and practice teamwork; they can also do those things by singing in a choir or creating art or building forts with the neighbor kids. When we say we pay for X because the benefits are X, we ignore the question that might immediately follow, which is “What is it that made you choose this particular path to reach that particular end?”


Sports, I think, can be a hot button issue because the state of sports and kids in America today is an entirely different ball game (pardon the pun) than it was even when today’s parents were coming up through the leagues. Once upon a time it was common for a great many kids to play in recreational leagues all the way through middle school, sometimes high school, and there was not this tremendous pressure to specialize. Kids playing at the varsity level in high school could still play a different sport each season, perhaps with some overlap during season transitions but not so much to create a widespread problem. But in today’s sport culture, recreational leagues are waning, kids are specializing as early as age five or six, and travel leagues that require significant investments of money, time, and energy have become the norm. 


With this kind of shift has come inevitable changes that have a deep impact on not only the children involved in these sports, but on entire families and communities as well. Children are sustaining repetitive use injuries at earlier and earlier ages, putting their growing bodies through intense training that may have lasting effects. Family schedules are jam packed, leaving little or no time for family dinners, game nights, or lengthy bedtime tuck-ins. Free, unstructured play for many children is nearly a thing of the past. Children are rushed during the day and sleep deprived at night and it’s affecting their academic and social development. Siblings who weren’t the first in line when sports fever hit the home may find themselves dragged from one event to the other for the benefit of someone else. Communities become alienated from one another as neighbor kids head in different directions after school, this one to swim practice, this one to football, and that one to a soccer game. Friendships established on the field may or may not be reinforced at school or in the neighborhood since travel teams draw elite players from a wide pool. A child may essentially occupy space in two or three completely separate communities that do not overlap. What implications might that have on a child’s growing sense of self or their ability to feel grounded in a community? These are all factors to consider. My concern is not that sports are hurting our kids. My concern is that too much, too soon is creating an environment where we overestimate the value and underestimate the cost.


In his book Simplicity Parenting, author, counselor and educator Kim John Payne suggests that one of the things we do when we overpack our children’s lives with structured activities at a young age, even with the best of intentions, is we deprive them of the opportunity to anticipate. We keep them so busy and their time so full that they are lacking the time and space to prepare for what is to come. There is always something right here, right now. He posits that this overemphasis on doing, rather than being, is a hazard of parents not asking the question “‘Why?’ Why do our kids need to be busy all of the time? Why does our son, at age twelve, need to explore the possibility of space travel? Why do we feel we must offer everything? Why must it all happen now? Why does tomorrow always seem a bit late? Why would we rather squeeze more things into our schedules than to see what happens over time? What happens when we stop, when we have free time?”


I think, sometimes, we are afraid to ask the “Why?” I think sometimes we fear the possibility of missing something and so we pile more on, assuming that no harm will come of it. We seem to think more opportunity, more exposure, more experience is always better. But what if it’s really not? Perhaps we would be wise to harbor a healthy fear of what happens if we never slow down.


I am not against organized sports. I am not against exposing our children to a variety of activities to broaden their horizons and ignite new passions. But I think it’s important to take ourselves to task in considering what is too much, too soon, and question whether the-more-the-better-the-sooner-the-better is really a mantra suitable for raising kids. They only get one childhood. Do they really benefit by growing up so fast?