Few things are more entertaining than watching a pack of kindergarteners play basketball.
If you’ve ever been to a Y-league game on a Saturday morning, packed like a sardine into an elementary school gymnasium with every other parent in town, you understand.
Double dribbling, traveling, running the wrong way, waving to mom and dad, crying—you name it, it’s happening out there on the court. Add in the fact that well over half the players don’t have the requisite muscle mass to get the ball anywhere near the rim and, well, it’s a bit of an adorably magical train wreck.
But there’s something decidedly not cute brewing in those gyms, too: a growing number of parents are catering to their kids as if they’re professional athletes-in-training.
What does she know?! You might be muttering. My kid is gifted. He/she loves basketball/soccer/hockey/swimming/football; why wouldn’t I give my child every opportunity to excel?
And certainly, there’s truth in that sentiment. Supporting and nurturing our kids’ interests and talents is one of the most rewarding and genuinely fun aspects of parenting. We want them to discover their passions, to work hard, to succeed, and we swell with pride when they do.
But what if it’s also a little bit true that our collective emphasis on sports at increasingly young ages is getting out of hand?
I know people with kids as young as six on traveling sports teams—teams that play games sometimes hundreds of miles away. Teams that participate in tournaments where the kids play in three, four, five contests per day, or spend full Saturdays competing. Teams that practice multiple times per week. Teams that require families to drop sizable chunks of change each year to be part of.
Of course, there are indisputable benefits to involvement in athletics from an early age. It gets kids off the couch, away from the screens vying to monopolize their attention. It encourages healthy bodies, teamwork, discipline.
But what if it’s also a little bit true that too much of a good thing can pretty easily become a bad thing?
Let’s say Junior loves hockey. Watches it all the time, could stand on skates before he could speak in complete sentences, you get the picture. You sign him up for lessons. He’s a standout, so you quickly join a traveling team. He’s having fun, you’re having fun, everyone’s having fun. Soon though, you’re spending three or four nights per week at the rink for practices. Buying gear, arranging private lessons. Shelling out cash for uniforms, equipment, gas. There’s a weekend tournament out of town requiring a hotel stay. Then another. And another.
Soon, your first grader’s fledgling hobby has snowballed into a pseudo career taking up the majority of his—and your—free time. What’s more, even if you wanted to cut back, you’re in so deep now you’re not even sure you could. That FOMO stuff the millennials like to tweet about? It’s real. You worry if Junior doesn’t hire the private coach, join the traveling squad, put in the offseason training, he’ll be alarmingly behind when it’s time for him to join a high school team.
And he hasn’t even learned how to multiply by fives yet.
A quick Google search will reveal plenty of statistics showing over-involvement in sports at a young age contributes to increased incidence of injury, stress, and burnout by the early teenage years. It’s the kind of thing that’s quantifiable.
But what about the unmeasurable effects?
When we start viewing our kids’ hobbies as their jobs, what happens to their childhoods?
When the pursuit of athletic excellence borders on obsession, what happens to healthy balance in family life?
When we become hypnotized by the golden, glittering altar of sports, what do we sacrifice?
They’re questions I’m trying to ask myself often as my own young children start dipping their toes into organized sports. Already, I can feel the pressure to do more—both from the kids themselves and from my own—however irrational—fear of missing out.
I ran into a local youth coach recently, someone who’s been working with kids for many years. She shook her head as we talked about travel teams and tournaments. “It’s not good for the kids,” she sighed, “it’s just too much.”
And there’s the rub: what is the right balance that keeps kids active—but still affords them time to just be kids?
I’m sure the answer looks different for ever child, every family.
But it’s most definitely true the question is one we parents should be asking honestly and often, lest we lose sight of the magic.
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