Increasing Professionalism in Youth Sports

Back in the early 2000s, the show Friends was ending, the economy was booming, and Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake were wearing quite a bit of denim. Back then, I was still in elementary school just enjoying life. Every day I would get home from school, finish my homework, and go outside to play a little street soccer or hide n’ go seek. It did not matter which sport or game I played, I always had fun whether I lost or won. Nowadays, the seriousness in children’s sports is increasing. It seems as though children are no longer playing in the streets just for fun, instead, they are training long hours in hope of being the best they can ever be in order to fulfill their or maybe their parents’ dream of being a professional athlete. This may seem like a great goal to pursue, but we must ask ourselves, do the costs outweigh the benefits in achieving this dream?

Girl doing a floor trick in gymnastics!

Not only is there the actual financial cost, travel, club, and private teams for any sport charge a hefty sum, but there is also the cost that the child has to endure. Today, children start training and specializing in one sport from a very young age. The training they go through is intense and exhausting. Their entire childhood is basically spent playing that same sport over and over again. Kids do not get to experience the fun, playful part of their childhood. For instance, Mia Lines, a 4-year-old tennis “prodigy”, moved from Australia to south Florida to work with a professional coach. She is only four and her parents have already moved across the world! How is little Mia going to have a childhood if she’s only playing tennis all day? What if she grows older and hates playing tennis? If children grow up focused on only one aspect of their lives, they are never going to experience anything else. If they are training for their sport 24/7, then they will start to associate sports with terms like “training” and “workout”, rather than with terms like “play” and “leisure”. The sports environment for children is becoming increasingly focused only on winning and being the best rather than being focused on having fun. In his essay, “The Dynamics of Modern Sport: Notes on Achievement- Striving and the Social Significance of Sport”, Eric Dunning talks about the shift of focus from amateur sports to professional sports in our society. In all sports, the competition is growing and the level of difficulty is increasing. The sports community is becoming, as Dunning says, more “achievement-oriented”. It is almost socially unacceptable for a child to be an amateur at a sport. The parental thinking on this topic is along the lines of: why do a sport if you cannot be the best at it?

Society has also begun to encourage this type of professionalism in youth sports. For example, in 2009, the U.S. Kids Golf World Championship featured a category for boys under 6. Additionally, the Amateur Athletic Union sponsored a national basketball championship for boys and girls under 8, and even more astonishing, the NCAA lowered the year at which a player could be considered a basketball “prospect” to seventh grade! The increasing amount of professionalism in youth sports also increases the pressure on the children to do well. With all of these chances to progress and get recognized for their efforts, the children only focus on their sport.

However, kids shouldn’t only be focused on one thing, they should be able to explore all the different interests that they have. Parents should loosen up the reins and let children be children. Trying different sports and activities lets children interact with different types of people allowing them to learn and grow as people. If children are forced to stay on one path the entire time, they will never experience different things and will grow up with the mentality that the sport they play is the most important thing in the world.

Kids huddling together before a game!

Focusing and training hard to achieve a goal are not bad things, on the contrary, they are important skills to have. Those skills only have a negative effect when one focuses and trains too hard and does not actually enjoy life. To combat the increasing professionalism in youth sports, our society needs to bring back the elements of fun and play!

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One comment

  1. sklokiw · November 17, 2014

    I really appreciated this post because growing up, I was one of those kids whose life was dictated by a sport. In fourth grade, I left my local gymnastics club in favor of a much more high-caliber program in Connecticut (I live in New York), which required an extended commute and totaled thirteen hours a week of the sport. From seventh grade through senior year, I was going to practice from 6:15-9:15 pm, five days a week: totaling fifteen hours a week. The amount of effort it took for my parents and babysitters to transport me, the amount of money spent, the amount of time spent in other cities and states for competitions was enormous and put a lot of stress on me to perform well and, as I got older, I felt guilty that my parents had given so much toward this sport for me. Injuries run rampant, and the sport is so physically and mentally taxing that I decided that to continue the sport into college would not be wise. This added more guilt: so all of the effort for the last nine years were for…what? The experience the sport gave me was incredible and I do believe that I am lucky to have been given this talent and the ability to meet so many incredible people and compete against some of the best athletes I’ve never met. And I do feel like I missed out on some vital parts of childhood because I spent so much time in the gym. HOWEVER, while I may feel as though I missed out on some of the “fun” elements of childhood, I know that what I was doing was incredible. Sure, I wasn’t watching cartoons with the neighborhood kids. But I was training insane skills with girls who are basically my sisters and making myself into a powerful athlete, which is something I think I have a right to be proud of. I find your idea that “Those skills only have a negative effect when one focuses and trains too hard and does not actually enjoy life” honestly disrespectful and ignorant towards young athletes who are truly pursuing something that they love. Gymnastics was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, but I’m extremely proud that I was able to learn lessons about winning, losing, and everything in between as opposed to joining a few clubs in high school and calling it a day. I love the sport. My parents supported but never pressured me into staying with it. Basically, my point is that I don’t think that anyone who hasn’t personally had the experience of being an accomplished, driven young athlete can pass judgement on those who were.

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