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It’s time for some perspective in youth sports

August 30, 2010

Sometimes these things just fall into my lap.

Such is the case with this column.

Readers know I am bent on making sure adults really understand their place in youth sports.

At the same time, I really want to make sure kids also know their place.

Coaches coach.

Teachers teach.

Parents parent.

Kids play.

What comes with playing sports is a set of rules for those in all four categories.

And, I fully believe those rules aren't all that hard to follow.

But, like most things in life, once the line in the sand is drawn, someone quickly decides that line is in the wrong place and moves it.

That's where trouble begins and, unfortunately, doesn't end.

I came across an Associated Press article about this youth sports thing and how it is so far beyond real life.

The Columbus Dispatch newspaper reported Sunday that a year-round study indicates that a $5 billion youth sports industry is pushing some children too hard and pressuring families to spend big money traveling the country for games, specialized training and the pursuit of elusive college scholarships.


The Dispatch said it spent a year examining the current landscape of youth sports and found it is marked with physical, emotional and financial minefields for children and families. Some parents are driven by fear that their children won't be good enough for a varsity or college team.


Again, about 94 percent of high school athletes are not and will never be good enough for college scholarships.

Tell that to some parents and you think you have just called their kids inadequate and a terrible athlete.

Not saying that at all.

Just looking at the numbers and stating what the numbers are saying.

That would be our children need to spend more times on their education.


The study says that families easily can sink up to $50,000 a year in youth sports.

One Cleveland family spent $30,000 in six months to help their son pursue a soccer dream, the newspaper said. Another mother arranged to send her 11-year-old son to live with a trainer in Alabama to refine his football skills.

About 40 million children participate in youth sports - nearly six times as many who play high school sports and 100 times as many who play at an NCAA college.

See those numbers?

I am all for kids playing sports, cheerleading, playing in the band, being members of the Key Club, Y Club and any other club that promotes goodwill, teaches that service is better than sitting back doing nothing.

To examine the sports culture, the Dispatch surveyed about 1,000 Ohio high school students and 213 coaches, along with 70 athletes and 33 coaches from Ohio State University.

Half of the athletes said they started playing sports as young as 6 and quickly felt the need to press on if they wanted to someday earn a spot on the high school varsity team or win a scholarship.

More than 40 percent said their parents pressured them to play, and 10 percent said their parents' behavior during games embarrassed them.

"Too many parents today want to be agents instead of parents," said Dave Klontz, head baseball coach at Heath High School.

Sandy Baum, an economics professor at Skidmore College in Saratoga, N.Y., and an expert on financial aid, said parents are making the wrong investment.

"Your kid is much better off studying and doing well academically than spending all the time on the soccer field."


According to the article, in the past decade, the amount of money pouring into nonprofit youth sport organizations has doubled to nearly $70 million in Ohio, according to IRS tax data. Nationally, those groups are collecting $5 billion a year.

Some kids feel caught between high school and youth sports coaches.

About 25 percent of high school students said they felt pressed to play at a higher level of competition. As a consequence, nearly half of the high school coaches said some athletes have quit their teams to focus on playing with non-school teams.

"We're in the business of preparing kids for the next level of life, but parents are in the business of preparing their kids for the next level of sport," said Dan Ross, executive director of the Ohio High School Athletic Association. "This is about kids. This isn't a meat grinder, but sometimes we get caught in a meat grinder."

Here's my question: If 40 million kids play youth sports, why don't all those 40 million kids play high school sports?

Adults are the main reason - pushy parents and screaming coaches.

I've seen youth coaches who also just don't get it. You are not Bear Bryant. You are not Jimmy Johnson.

Your constant outbursts do not make the game pleasurable at all.

Parents, your constant outbursts do not make the game pleasurable at all.

Also from the Dispatch article ... the uncounted ribbons, trophies and jerseys that Marcella Chavez earned from years of playing soccer are now packed away in her Worthington bedroom.

The almost year-round cycle of games and practices were at times too much for the fifth-grader, but that didn't drive Chavez from the sport she loved at age 11.

No matter how fast Marcella ran or how many goals she scored, her club soccer coach would scream and scream and scream some more. She would deflect the verbal abuse and booming voice just long enough to get in the car or back to her bedroom, where the tears would sometimes flow.

Her parents talked with the coach several times, but he believed his coaching style was appropriate and Marcella was the one with the problem. She wasn't the only girl to hear the screams, but her family believes she was targeted most.

"I tried to ignore it; I wouldn't look at him, but it made me not want to play any more," Chavez said. "It went on for a long time, and I just got burned out."

Marcella said she has no plans to return to soccer and will instead focus on running. She recently placed eighth in the 3,000-meter run at the Junior National Olympics.

"It's sad when kids this young give up something they love," said Marcella's mom, Becky Chavez. "It's our responsibility as adults, parents and coaches to realize that we are pushing our kids too hard for one reason or another. And that can break their spirit."

When children quit playing youth sports, they often blame it on too many games, too many practices, too many screaming coaches and too little time for themselves.

Burnout is the leading reason kids quit playing youth sports, according to the Dispatch survey.

More than half of the athletes surveyed said they had quit playing at least one sport.

"Parents oftentimes think that if kids are good at something, then they must love it," said Chris Stankovich, a Columbus psychologist. "What was fun at 8 may not be fun at 10 or 12. It's become a lot more serious earlier."

(Mathison, a Weirton resident, is the sports editor of the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times and can be contacted at

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