Competitive youth sports is a huge business — estimated to be at least $5 billion a year — and increasingly consumes the time and energy of families with children who want to play or with parents who want their children to play. It has become a way for some parents to try to get their athletically able children into prestigious colleges in a process that sometimes asks young teens to commit to college years before entering as freshmen — and that leaves some children physically and emotionally harmed.

If you don’t have a child who has been involved in competitive sports, you might be surprised to learn how much it comes to dominate the lives of families. In this post, a father and college admissions counselor looks at his own family’s involvements with competitive youth sports and assesses the culture and the costs. The author is Brennan Barnard, director of college counseling at the Derryfield School, a private college preparatory day school for grades 6 to 12 in Manchester, N.H.

By Brennan Barnard

It is Sunday morning and the “congregation” stands praying to the future. We hang on every command from the man adorned in black and white as if our children’s fate depends on it. We observe the demigods at play, hoping our tithing will be rewarded with the blessings at the Ivy gates.

My son crouches next to me, wondering out loud as to why we must gather here. We have come to support his younger sister, a sacrificial lamb in this complicated world of elitism and hierarchy. She has offered herself up, and I reluctantly condone her conviction. I hesitate to accept this dogma, yet we have always encouraged our children to follow their calling, so I concede.

The bell chimes, and there is silence as the young flock takes to their knees. The sermon is delivered with fervor, they drink from their plastic chalices and with another bell their service to the higher powers resumes. I am conflicted as I sit worshiping the sport of lacrosse on the “Lord’s Day.” Is nothing sacred?  Nine years old and this seems to be her de facto christening. I was able to begrudgingly accept the weeknight practices at the dinner hour, and the late bedtimes during the school week.

But mid-morning games on Sunday? How did this once sacred boundary collapse? It’s simple. It collapsed on the all-important altar of college admissions, the god to whom we must pay tribute. When did youth athletics go astray?

Playing sports, of course, has long been a key part of American education, a release valve of joyous energy. But it is now something else. Men’s football and basketball have been sinning for some time, and now the warped imperatives have crept into other sports.

As a high school college counselor, I cringe at the 14- and 15-year-olds who are forced to “commit” to a college by the heavy hand of competitive athletics. Stories abound of students who have made verbal agreements with coaches before even stepping on a high school athletic field. These Doogie Howsers of lacrosse, football and other sports are far from fully developed as athletes or decision makers. They have become specialists at a time that should be reserved for exploration. They limit themselves by the pursuit of a single sport year round, the concept of an off-season becoming an archaic notion.  Their young bodies suffer from stress fractures and other perils of overtraining, and their sport-specific skill development restricts overall growth as an athlete. With schedules crammed full of practices, clinics, games and travel, where is the available time or energy for athletes to be children or try new activities? As for choosing a college years before high school graduation, how does a ninth-grader know what she wants in her college experience?

High school becomes another box to check on the march to the future. The message this sends about the value of education is thwarted — but in the name of what? Going pro? The mirage of a huge college scholarship? Acceptance to a prestigious institution or spot on a championship team? Exploitation in service to their institution?

I am not condemning college athletics or discounting the power that involvement in sports has to transform lives and create opportunity. In fact, I have counseled hundreds of student athletes to Division I, II and III schools in lacrosse, field hockey, crew, soccer, golf and other sports. Many have had extraordinary experiences and have received amazing educations both in the classroom and on the field. The question is whether this still happen with more balance and humanity.

It is the intrinsic responsibility of educators, coaches and parents to pull back on this trend as developmentally inappropriate for our young people and as a disturbing intrusion on the family, faith and freedom of children. The change must begin from on high, setting boundaries to protect our student athletes. NCAA, where are you? Admission offices, college presidents, athletic directors, where are you? Reason, where are you?

My daughter’s game comes to an end, and she walks over in her goalie gear with a huge smile escaping her helmet. I would be a heathen to keep her from the game that she has come to love. Then again, maybe I am a heathen to surrender to this faithless system.