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Youth sports are supposed to be fun, build character and improve fitness.
In many cases, however, they’re also causing injuries, social anxiety and mental health problems for athletes and parents alike.
Author Linda Flanagan tackles this conundrum in her new book, “.” Flanagan alleges that the $19 billion youth sports industry has gotten out of control, a serious problem considering about 60 million children and teens from ages 6 to 18 participate in organized sports each year, according to the National Council of Youth Sports.
To hear Flanagan tell it, the issue has gotten way beyond parents behaving badly from the sidelines. Her takeaway: While youth sports have positives, the industry is in dire need of perspective and change.
Flanagan is no stranger to the ins and outs of youth sports – the 59-year-old writer from Summit, New Jersey, has three grown children, one of whom was heavily into sports. She also coached girls’ sports from 2002 to 2019. CNN talked with Flanagan to discuss her work and to learn more about what parents can do to ensure kids engage in youth sports programs on their own terms.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CNN: What are the positives of youth sports?
Linda Flanagan: There are so many. Exercise is a positive. Every week we learn more and more about how essential movement is, and for kids it’s so important to get on that track of exercising while they’re young. To develop lifelong commitment to moving and exercise. Sports build camaraderie. They teach teamwork. At a time when kids are obsessed with technology, sports also keep them away from their phones. Sports provide opportunities for kids to get to know other kids from other backgrounds. In that sense, youth sports can be a great leveler.
CNN: What negatives have emerged around youth sports?
Flanagan: Youth sports have become a class-based system. Participation is determined by household income. If you’re on the low-income side of things, your chances of participating are lower. A third of the kids in lower-income housing are inactive, they don’t play at all. On this low end there’s too little (participation), and on the upper end – among families that can afford it – you’ve got too much. There are all sorts of club teams.
It’s a feast or famine situation: famine in low-income areas and feasting among the high-income (set). Families with higher incomes also lean toward sport specialization at a younger age. Parents start out thinking (that) this is the only way to do it. And they push, so kids play too much and get injured, burned out and end up wanting to quit. A lot of kids quit before they even get to high school. For them the joy is gone.
CNN: From your research, what is corrupting youth sports?
Flanagan: I identify three main large causes. First is money. Youth sports are an enormous industry – a $19 billion industry. That’s larger than the National Football League, which (was) estimated to be $15 billion (in 2019). The youth sports industry has grown 90% since 2010. That means there are a lot of people (who) are profiting off it.
The second cause is the changed perspective on childhood. This is a cultural change; sometime between the 1970s and the 1990s, children moved from our employees to our bosses. The whole idea of what parents are expected to do for their kids and what kids mean for their parents has changed. Now a child’s success in youth sports carries with it some status. My parents didn’t attach their status to how their kids did in sports. They had their own lives.
The third cause is change at colleges and universities. Tuition is so high, and there’s this perception that it’s harder to get into the top schools. Being an athlete can help defray those costs. (The National Collegiate Athletic Association gives out more than) $3.6 billion every year in athletic scholarships. That’s a lot of rewards for kids who excel at sports.
CNN: How are parents complicit in this problem?
Flanagan: That middle chunk, the issue with kids moving from employees to bosses – that’s the big problem for parents. Today everything our kids do seem to be a reflection on us. It’s hard to resist that kind of pressure to do everything we possibly can for your kids. Most parents start out with good intentions. The issue takes on a life of its own when kids start to do well.
Parents are reluctant to acknowledge how much this matters to them. Sometimes it matters too much. We become too invested. That’s when it tips over from love for the child to ego gratification to the parents. That’s when it robs youth sports of what makes them fun. We’re supposed to be midwives to their development, not the primary recipients of the rewards. It’s a slippery slope.
CNN: How do parents know their own obsession with youth sports is getting out of hand?
Flanagan: Parents can start by asking themselves some questions: Am I one of those crazy parents? How would I feel if my child decided to quit? Would I be devastated? How many minutes does it take me at a cocktail party or when I’m meeting someone to talk about my child’s performance in sports? These are all important questions to answer.
If you would be devastated by your child quitting, maybe you’re a little too invested. If you talk about your kids’ accomplishments before your own, maybe you need to back off. According to one study I looked at, 19% of (families) spend 20 hours a week or more on kids’ sports. When you find your whole life being swallowed by youth sports, that’s a warning sign. You’re too invested.
CNN: What happens when a kid specializes in one sport?
Flanagan: Apples are good for kids, but if your child wants to eat apples all day, are you going to let them do that? No way. It’s too much of one thing. It’s not healthy for a child to specialize in one thing. Kids need broad developmental experiences.
All the medical experts I spoke to – among them there is absolute consensus that sport specialization is not good for kids. It’s not good for physical development, and it’s not good for emotional development. College coaches want kids who play multiple sports. The best athletes play multiple sports. People who argue for it are the ones who profit from it.
It’s not in kids’ best interest to specialize before they are adolescents. By the time they’re 14 or 15, maybe they’re old enough to decide for themselves. Even then, most are likely to burn out. Then there are the long-term consequences of overdoing it in kids’ sports.
Every year in my town I hear about middle school girls who have torn their ACLs (a knee ligament) playing lacrosse. Usually, they’re 12 or 13. Some studies say half of people who tear their ACLs will get arthritis in 10 years. We’re missing something here.
CNN: What’s the solution? How can parents “take back the game,” as your book is titled?
Flanagan: I offer four principles to guide you as a parent. The first is to look at your child and recognize that interest and passion in any of this must come from them. They need to be the ones deciding how much they want to play. If you’re the adult mandating sports participation, that’s not going to end well. That doesn’t mean you can’t nudge them a little bit, but you should allow them as much decision-making as possible.
The second principle: Keep your family whole. The youth sports industry is going to try to tear you apart. If you get into it, you’ll find yourself on a weekend where Mom is going to Maryland for a tournament with one kid, while Dad is going to New York with another. It doesn’t need to be that way. Start later, stay local and object to the dumb stuff. Parents must recognize they have agency, and they need to exercise it to stay sane.
My third piece of advice: Try to keep perspective. Everything in youth sports always seems more important than it is. It isn’t that important. Talk to older adults who’ve been through this for some insight. Imagine how you’ll look at this dilemma in five years. It’s OK if your child misses some games. It’s OK if your child wants out.
Finally – and this is important – parents must model what they want their kids to learn. A lot of this is about following a positive picture of adulthood. We have lost track of what we’re modeling to our kids. All we do is tend to them. No wonder they don’t want to grow up – all we’re doing is driving them around and tending to their every need. It doesn’t have to be that way.
CNN: How can parents weather the inevitable fights over scaling back?
Flanagan: Parents aren’t powerless. You can safeguard your own family and look out for your kids in a way that enables them to do sports on your terms. Parents can’t wait for the system to self-correct. They must stop it themselves, put their flag in their ground and say, “We’re not doing this anymore.” So much of this is grounded in anxiety and worry about the future. It’s OK for parents to just take a step back and let kids be kids.
Matt Villano is a writer and editor based in California. His work has appeared in The New York Times, CNN and elsewhere.