How young is too young to start competitive sports?

My athletic career began at the age of 4. I was a year too young to officially sign up for the local recreational soccer league. My older brother played though, and my dad was one of his team’s coaches. I became apart of the team.

Years later when I joined my first travel soccer team, the stakes increased – more time, more money, more travel, more competition. Things only intensified as I got older. Driving at least 30 minutes each way several times during the week for 90 minute to 2 hour training sessions became the norm. I played at countless weekend tournaments, sometimes three matches in a single day. Many of these were in locations I had never been before. (My first trip on a plane was from New Jersey to Tampa, Florida on Christmas day in the middle of a snow storm to play in a soccer tournament.) Club fees, gear, travel, lodging, food, the expenses were significant each year.

But, for what?

Now, I will be the first person to admit there are a number of benefits to participating in organized sports. It can teach structure, discipline, work ethic, and striving to reach a goal. For soccer in particular, there’s also evidence showing the development of heightened alertness, and improved attention and executive function among talented players. These are all good things.

There are some risks though, many of which we still know little about. Mark Hyman details some of these in his book The Most Expensive Game in Town: The Rising Cost of Youth Sports and the Toll on Today’s Families. I already mentioned the financial costs, those are the obvious ones. But what about the unintended consequences of overly structured environments at too young an age? What about the barrage of negative emotion, whether verbal_bullying_mean_teacher_coachyelling or otherwise, inflicted on kids by parents who are unable to differentiate from their child and their own experience? What about the false hope instilled in young athletes by parents and the youth sports industry about the potential for landing a major division 1 college scholarship? What about shrinking amounts of essential sleep a child or teenage gets from being over-extended (not to mention the sleep a parent loses too) and its health consequences? What about the reliance on fast, convenience, or processed food because there’s no time to have a sit-down dinner in the evening? These all influence the health, development, self-image, and mental well-being of today’s youth.

Yesterday I read an article in the paper about local travel basketball teams for fourth-graders! These kids are eight and nine years old! Some teams can’t even break 10 points in a game, yet teams have corporate sponsors (yes, Cargill sponsors one of the teams), parents are happy to drop $75 per hour for a personal coach/trainer, and holiday tournaments replace relaxing downtime.

Again, I say, for what?

The ultimate goal according to one parents is an athletic college scholarships. In the article she says, “The end game would be, [probably a college] athletic scholarship would be nice.” And the unfortunate trend is to begin competitive sports at even younger ages, not older.

Let me be as clear as possible: stop wasting your time. As stated in this recent article, “the odds of landing a college scholarship in many major sports are lower than the chances of being admitted to Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Stanford.”

I was one of the few blessed to play a division 1 sport and receive a scholarship to do so. The scholarship, though, only subsidized a small fraction of my annual tuition and I stopped playing after my sophomore year to focus on academics. Despite my best intentions, I’m not a professional soccer player. My education has launched me to areas I would’ve only dreamed about had I stuck to my delusional aspirations.

Competitive youth athletics have their place. They can serve a valuable purpose and help teach valuable lessons and values. But listen to any top college basketball coach for example, they care just as much about nurturing good people, not just good players. It’s about more than the game, as Duke Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski reminded us when speaking about the passing of legendary coach Dean Smith, “…his greatest gift was his unique ability to teach what it takes to become a good man.”

Let’s keep competitive athletics in its place. Let’s also let kids be kids, and enjoy some unstructured playtime every now and again. The less we insist on doing things to help our kids “get ahead,” the more they actually might.

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