Let’s Regain the Proper Perspective About Sports in Our Kids’ Lives

It’s that time of year again – spring sports season! Time for kids to pick dandelions, suck down sugary juice boxes, and for parents to lose their sh*t. Seriously, how did we get to this point?

Here in the Midwest we’re only a few short weeks away from soccer fields full of toddlers tripping over too-big-t-shirts while wandering aimlessly about like a scene from The Walking Dead. The baseball diamonds will soon be buzzing with excitement as small children man the infield and construct intricate piles of gravel while waiting not-so-patiently for the “game” to end and snack time to begin. All the while anxious, hopeful and overly-amped-up parents coax and cajole their little ones to “Score!”, “Shoot!”, and “Run!” from the sidelines.

Youth sports is a bubble that is bound to burst. It’s getting ridiculous. A return to sanity would be a positive development for both kids and their parents, but it will require parents – like me – to get a grip.

It’s said that, “If you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m part of the problem, but I’m trying to learn from my past mistakes. The problems rampant in youth sports have been well catalogued. Here’s my attempt to add something to the dialogue.

My Experience with Sports

Organized sports were a big part of my childhood, but not my early childhood. That was due, in part, to the fact that there were fewer options available. The other part was the fact that my parents encouraged disorganized play with friends as opposed to the structure of a team. I didn’t play organized baseball until I was 9 years old, but I went on to play Division 1 college baseball.

I joined the Bowling Green State University baseball team, a member of the Mid-American Conference, as a preferred walk on. That means I was guaranteed a spot on the team but had no scholarship. I later went on to earn a scholarship. We were a good team. I was a decent second baseman.

The highlight of my four years was my senior year when we won both the regular season and postseason MAC conference championships and earned a spot in the NCAA College World Series regional tournament. We traveled down to Coral Gables, Florida, to play the number one team in the country, the University of Miami Hurricanes. The Hurricanes were stacked – they had a bunch of future professional ballplayers on their squad, including Pat “The Bat” Burrell, Bobby Hill, Jason Michaels and Aubrey Huff. We played them under the lights in front of a capacity crowd of thousands at their home field.

We jumped out to an early lead in the first inning. The Hurricanes clawed back and led 4-3 in the fourth inning when I came up to bat with two outs and a man on third. I swung wildly and missed the first two curveballs thrown to me. The count was 0-2. Then the pitcher made a mistake, because “You never throw Harrington an 0-2 curveball.” Actually, you always should throw me an 0-2 curveball. Or a fastball up and in, or a changeup down and away. I wasn’t a very good hitter. But in this instance I got lucky and hit an opposite field two-run home run, putting us up 5-4.

And then the wheels came off. Burrell hit two monster home runs and we ended up losing 21-6. But what a blast! After the game I got drug tested by the NCAA (seriously). Two teammates and I were quarantined in a trailer until we were able to pee in a cup – which took a while given the hot, humid Miami weather. (I passed in case you were wondering.) I also participated in the post game press conference and gave some lame answers to questions posed by a couple of reporters from Toledo, Ohio news outlets who were down to cover the game.

It could have been worse. After we were knocked out of the tournament, my teammates and I found ourselves in Miami for a night – school done and the season over. A group of us bailed on curfew and jumped in a cab and headed to South Beach. I don’t think the jean shorts, tank tops and baseball caps went over particularly well on the club circuit, but we had a great time.

Playing sports was the most valuable experience I had while in college – by a long shot. But that was it. I had no chance of advancing beyond college sports and I knew it from the moment I stepped on campus.

But apparently things have changed.

Unfounded Expectations and Misplaced Dreams

According to a recent study released by the NCAA, a ridiculously high percentage of student-athletes believe that it is not just possible, but likely, that they will become a professional and/or Olympic athlete in their sport after college. This includes 78% of hockey players, 73% of basketball players, 72% of golfers, 64% of football players, 53% of soccer players, and 49% of baseball players.

The reality? The NCAA publishes separate statistics regarding the probability of competing in sports beyond high school. They are striking.

Of the approximately 1 million kids that play high school football, 6.5% – approximately 65,000 athletes – will play in college (Divisions 1, 2 and 3). Only 1.6% of college players get drafted by the NFL. That’s 1,000 football players out of the 65,000 that play in college, and 1 million that play in high school. While 1,000 get drafted, far fewer ever sign a contract or make an NFL roster, let alone make a living at it.

The story is the same, to one degree or another, in all sports. Only 1 in 2,541 high school basketball players will get drafted by an NBA team.

And it’s not just student-athletes with delusions of grandeur. According to a survey conducted by National Public Radio. 26% of parents whose children play high school sports hope their child will become a professional athlete one day. That number rises to 39 percent among families with a median income under $50,000.

So that’s the data. But what does it all mean? There’s nothing wrong with high aspirations and big dreams, but the problem is that the dream is oftentimes the parent’s not the athlete’s. And that’s where things go awry.

Keeping Up with the “Juniors”

The phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses” comes from a cartoon strip started in 1913, in which the cartoonist mocked people’s obsession with everyone else’s stuff. First, the Joneses. Now we’re keeping up with the Kardashians.

We measure ourselves against others based on status symbols such as cars, houses, clothing brands and club memberships. We’ve all fallen victim at some point, and to some extent, to the desire to keep up with our neighbor’s success – or at least how they outwardly project success through the accumulation of stuff.

The Internet has made it worse. We used to just envy what was in our neighbor’s driveway. Now we’re bombarded with images of fancy dinners, sporting events and exoctic trips via social media. And, unfortunately, many parents have started using their kids as the yardstick by which they benchmark their self worth and societal status.

We all want more for our kids. That’s a classic American virtue, and one worth sustaining. But competing with other adults via our children? That’s new and disturbing; harmful to both parent and child.

This phenomenon is perpetuated by the over-the-top actions of parents who relentlessly drive their children to excel in endeavors such as sports, academics and music, not for their child’s benefit, but for their own. We all brag about our kids, but these people take it to a whole new level. It’s the dad that manipulates the Little League draft so that his 7 year gets on the “right” team, or the mom that browbeats the teacher into making that B an A. His son is a star and her daughter is a whiz, after all. They can’t help but remind us how great their kid is, and by implication what losers ours are. Social media is their 24/7 modern day cocktail party at which to preen and strut.

Psychologists have coined a term for this behavior: narcissistic parenting.

Unfortunately, just as it’s easy to feel a tinge of envy when your neighbor parks his new boat in the driveway, it’s hard not to feel bad about ourselves when we learn little Suzy just earned her brown belt in Tae Kwon Do.

So we panic. Am I teaching my kids enough? Are they falling behind? Should I sign them up for more lessons? Next thing you know, your kids are busy five nights a week. I’ve experienced this, and our oldest just turned six. I’m sure the pressures grow exponentially as kids get older. Luckily Heather is good about applying the brakes on this type of thing. I need to check myself every time I walk into my daughter’s kindergarten classroom and start comparing her macaroni noodle art project to those of her classmates.

The problem is most prevalent with sports. Instead of looking at the data that suggests that it’s highly unlikely that our kids will play college sports, let alone go pro, and setting expectations in accordance with the data, we draw the opposite conclusion – we decide we need to start our kids even earlier and push them harder. Or we hold them back in school so that they will be bigger and strong relative to their classmates in order to give them a better chance in athletics. This is the “Outliers” phenomenon in youth sports fueled by the discussion of the “relative age effect” in Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book. And parents are pushing their kids toward one-sport specialization at earlier and earlier ages despite ample evidence that it’s not necessary – and generally is antithetical – to achieving elite athletic status.

This is crazy. As parents we need to get a grip. We shouldn’t try to fulfill our own unfulfilled dreams by driving our kids to be “winners.” What does it say about us when our kids feel that our love is conditional on their success and achievement? We need to remember that youth sports are for our kids, not ourselves.

It’s even crazier and more disheartening when you realize that many kids flame out anyway under the pressure, quitting their parents’ favored activities at 15 or 16 in the ultimate act of teenage rebellion.

I’m sure many people think I’m full of it and that they can push their kid to athletic greatness. But to me that’s like thinking you can win the lottery by balling your fists, furrowing your brow, and trying to will the right ping pong balls to blow out of the machine. Not gonna happen. By and large it’s an outcome that’s up to your kid, not you.

Let’s Take Back the Fields of Play

A big step in the right direction to ameliorate the problem would be to support and encourage good coaches that have the right perspective – that participation in sports is an important way to form the foundation of a good human being, first, and a good athlete, second. Coaches like the legendary Bob Ladouceur of De La Salle High School in Coronado, California, whose football teams won 399 games over 34 seasons, including 151 in a row at one point. His story was recently depicted in a movie called When the Game Stands Tall. Here’s one of the most powerful quotes from the movie:

“Growing up is painful. It’s not easy. But that’s what our program is about, in case you haven’t figured it out. It ain’t about football. It ain’t about scoring touchdowns. It ain’t about the win streak. It’s about moving you in a direction that will assist you and help you to grow up, so when you can take your place out in the world and out in our society and out in our community, you can be depended on.”

In other words, sport is about building character. I have been fortunate to have coaches like this in my life. My high school baseball coach Dan Griesbaum. My college coach Dan Schmitz. My dad, who was a remarkable two-sport athlete. He was the initial inductee in his college hall of fame (baseball and basketball) and the basketball program’s MVP award is still named the Jim Harrington Award more than 50 years later. And he never lost sight of the proper role of sports in my life.

I know this is a big problem. I have no idea what the big picture answer is. But I guess it’s up to each of us to regain the proper perspective when it comes to our kids’ athletic endeavors. I plan on starting this spring. I’m coaching Maddie’s soccer team and the only thing that will matter is fun. Whether that means picking dandelions, scoring goals or drinking Capri Sun, that’s cool with me. It’s fun that will keep them coming back for more.

FamilyJay Harrington