By Dr. Allison Belger
Lately, there has been an abundance of articles in social media documenting what is wrong with youth sports. Parents, coaches, doctors, and bloggers alike are focusing on problems with organized sports for young people in America. These articles often show up in my news feeds, shared and promoted by some of my closest and most respected friends. While I frequently agree with what I read, part of me is left thinking about how different and positive my experience has been as a coach and parent of children actively engaged in organized sports.
My daughters are 10 and 12. They both play soccer and have since they were five. I’ve coached my older daughter’s recreation league teams since she was in first grade and also coached my younger daughter’s rec team from grades one to three. In fourth grade, this daughter made the leap to competitive soccer (known elsewhere as select soccer or club soccer). The main differences between competitive and rec teams include tryouts vs. open enrollment, professional coaches vs. parent coaches, and long-distance travel vs. local games. The intensity and commitment of competitive soccer is often more significant than that of rec soccer, and, as a whole, the kids who choose the former are more serious about the game than those who choose the latter. Of course, at the youngest age levels, it is often the parents driving the decision to try out, and, therefore, it is the parents who are more serious.
I grew up playing soccer and played for many years, all the way through to my time on a Division One college team, complete with nine-hour bus trips for games. I was also a serious field hockey player throughout high school, and the majority of my most powerful and emotionally laden childhood memories are of time spent on one field or another—playing, practicing, or whooping it up with my teammates. My goal for my own daughters is that they, too, will make lifelong memories through experiences that are uniquely created in sport, regardless of the “eliteness” of their level of play. So far, so good.
These days, there is much talk about the importance for young girls of making meaningful connections that foster their self-esteem; the goal is to encourage young women to have a strong voice and the capacity to be heard and to make a difference. We are told that girls need to develop their physical selves in order to be strong and healthy, better able to combat the pervasive media messages that threaten to make them sexual objects. We are told that friendships made in the context of shared, meaningful pursuits will help them resist negative peer pressure–including experimentation with drugs and alcohol–and make good decisions as they navigate the challenges of adolescence.
While there are many avenues that can provide such connections for our daughters, to my mind there is no substitute for the connections girls make when they are part of a sports team–a view rooted in my own childhood as an athlete. In my years of working as a psychologist specializing in assessments of children, teens, and young adults, I saw the benefits of group membership and shared pursuits—from music groups, to chess clubs, to debate teams.
However, there is something particularly transformative about what can happen when physical effort is at the root of human connectedness. Sharing the rigors of training, the triumphs and losses, the fatigue and grit, and so many other aspects of team sports, can truly make magic happen among team members. To be fair and clear, my own daughters have found similar reinforcement through their commitment and involvement in a tight-knit performing arts community. Even here, the physical aspects of dance and movement on stage are part of the positive group experience, much as we see with sports. Still, I stand by my story that, as a rule, sports reign along these lines.
No doubt about it: there are things wrong with today’s youth sports scene. As mentioned above, I have read the articles highlighting the premature selection of “talent;” the physical and psychological downsides of early specialization; and the obvious negative impacts of parents who infuse into the experience an intense and misguided drive for stardom, college scholarships, and even careers as professional athletes. I have witnessed firsthand the politics and drama that can permeate both recreational programs and competitive clubs. I have seen kids in tears after games, while their parents stomp off from the sidelines, clearly disappointed in their child’s performance or the bad call of a ref. I have, myself, been guilty of less-than-optimal emotional involvement in a particular game or outcome.
However, I’m here to say there is a whole lot that is RIGHT with youth sports if my girls’ experience is any indication of what can take place across our fields and towns. My daughters are making friends and sharing common ground with girls they might not otherwise know or connect with at all. They are learning that things don’t always go their way, but they can still be engaged while working toward a goal. They are learning that coaches (myself included)—like teachers, parents, and others in positions of power and authority—are not always perfect. They are learning how to push through fatigue, how to fight when they’re feeling defeated, and how to access parts of themselves that they didn’t know existed—attributes that can only be unveiled and revealed through competition.
They are learning that people come to the field with varying abilities, and that each can make a contribution in some way. The girl who struggles with the short passing game might have the strongest shot. The girl who is bigger and slower just might be a human wall on defense. The girl who is shy and reserved might find her powerful voice on the field, helping to direct traffic and make things happen. The girl who is challenged by academics just might be a star in the game and might inspire others to try harder. The list of positives goes on and on.
There is nothing incredibly special or unique about the teams on which my girls have played; their stories are just like those of your kids. There are ups and downs–moments of elation and moments of defeat and sadness. There are times when everything seems to click and times when it all seems pointless. Sounds like a pretty real and fabulous tool for dealing with most events in our lives, doesn’t it?
Parents, coaches, and those in charge of youth sport organizations need to behave well as positive role models, no doubt about it. But I think it’s important that we continue to acknowledge all that can be good about having our kids play: the forum still provides an opportunity for meaningful human connection, increased self-confidence, along with physical fitness and the empowerment that follows. Let’s not throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water. With renewed attention to what is “right,” we can continue to provide opportunities for our kids to thrive while participating in youth sports in America. I, for one, am in the game and hooked for life, regardless of whether my own girls take the field. Of course, I hope they will!