Our son had always been a great ice skater. But beyond lapping everyone at the rink and trying tricks in the middle of the ice, he never wanted to do anything more with it.
Then he decided he wanted to give hockey a try.
Turns out, he was waaaaay over the hill. At 10.
This was our introduction to the madness that has become youth sports in this country. And, as my colleague Michael S. Rosenwald reports, fewer kids are joining teams because of it.
The 10-year-olds at the rink where we skate were already doing 6 a.m. goalie clinics and off-ice conditioning, travel tourneys and sessions with personal trainers.
This isn’t the Mighty Ducks. You don’t just walk off the pond and onto the rink to join a ragtag team of kids to find joy and inspiration.
So we tried to play by their rules and get into the pipeline toward team play — a series of lessons, followed by another series of lessons, followed by a tryout.
The scene at the first lesson was ridiculous.
There was my 10-year-old, in his Craigslist skates and his brother’s lacrosse gloves, towering over a swarm of 4- and 5-year-olds. They came up to his waist and looked like the miniature version of the 1998 USSR gold medal-winning hockey team, only decked out in completely matching, teeny-tiny Capitals gear, right down to the jersey with their (dad’s) favorite player.
And you can guess who was on the sidelines: totally unhinged parents living out their hat-trick hallucinations through young children who would rather have a juice box.
Fun? Few of the little kids were smiling.
It’s official. Parents have just about killed the fun of playing team sports.
They’ve done it with technique clinics, personal trainers, elite travel leagues, pricey tournaments — fine-tuning kids for athletic glory before they’ve amassed a respectable archive of knock-knock jokes.
I’ve been fuming about this for some time, because I see the larger toll this takes on communities.
Kids who used to meet at our neighborhood park for play in those last hours of daylight before dinner are nowhere to be found.
Too busy with their practices, training schedules and tournaments to come out and toss around a ball for — gasp — fun.
This kind of hyper-competitive mania shuts out the kids who aren’t just in it to win it.
“The system is designed to meet the needs of the most talented kids,” Mark Hyman, a professor of sports management at George Washington University, told The Washington Post. “We no longer value participation. We value excellence.”
What’s also crazy is the money. Playing on many teams now costs thousands of dollars. So we’re also shutting out the kids who can’t afford all the pricey travel and extras. We’re shutting out the kids without families who can be full-time chauffeurs and team escorts. And we’re shutting out the kids who aren’t natural stars on the field.
No wonder participation in youth sports has dropped by 4 percent nationwide in the past six years, according to a survey by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. And with the focus on the elite travel teams, local recreational leagues are withering.
Take the little neighborhood touch football program that my husband runs. Once upon a time, he played offensive tackle on the California equivalent of a Friday Night Lights high school team. But, as a coach, he wants the kids to have fun.
He asks for a few throwing drills and some sprints, but most of the afternoon practice is spent playing the game. His mantra: Every player must get to touch the ball.
That approach doesn’t cut it with some dads, especially the ones who also played football in high school or college. For them, playing on a field for two hours simply isn’t intense enough for their future RG3s.
One kid was pretty good, so his dad took him to the super-serious youth tackle team nearby, the one that starts kids at 5-years-old and is known in the neighborhood as the “football factory.”
They had him doing wind sprints with a parachute on the sidelines at every single practice. He never touched the ball. He was over the hill for that program, even though he was just 8.
We kept taking our son to the mandatory hockey lessons.
He turned 11 and grew even taller than the young children on the ice with him. He was still a year away from being able to try out for a team and play with kids his own age.
Then I finally found a team that would take him this season, one that didn’t require the rigid pipeline.
His first practice was last week. At the parent meeting, the coach did a PowerPoint presentation about the way he approaches sports.
He quoted a study from the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, in which kids were asked to give the top three reasons they play sports.
“To win?” No. “To go to a higher level of competition?” No. “To do something I’m good at?” No.
Both boys and girls unanimously said this: “To have fun.”
I left that parent meeting smiling. And my hockey player walked off the ice smiling, too.
“That was so fun playing with other kids like me!” he said.
As it should be.
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