Sports

Dear Parents: Resist the Madness of Organized Children’s Sports

Young soccer-team members practice at a publicly-funded field in Weston, Fla., in 2013. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)
Organized sports for kids are fine in moderation — but moderation, it seems, is not the American way.

Brace yourself, parents of America, for I’m about to drop an uncomfortable truth bomb: If you’re stressed out, overscheduled, and fun-starved — and if none of these three problems relate to your job, your finances, your health, or the fact that you’re constantly forced to move between various mysterious small towns because you’re hiding in the federal witness-protection program — the odds are that organized children’s sports might be ruining your life.

It’s a dramatic statement, but it is also true. The havoc wreaked by children’s sports upon the lives and happiness of people who should simply be hanging out and doing nothing on Saturdays is impossible to measure, but it is surely close to the sum of all the heartless and bloody rampages portrayed in every Godzilla movie ever made.

Most Americans intuitively know, for example, that soccer can ruin lives. No offense to four-year-olds, who are frequently delightful people, but who wants to spend their Friday night watching four-year-olds play soccer? Actually, to be fair, no four-year-old is actually playing soccer. Instead, the children are simply running around in spirals or half-heartedly staring into middle distance or cheerfully poking giant, dangerous-looking ant piles with their cleats. They don’t want to be there either! They could be poking dangerous-looking ant piles at home.

Moreover, if your child turns out to eventually be good at soccer, the “reward” involves spending each Saturday for the next ten years of your life driving said child to four separate same-day soccer tournaments held in four different towns each two hours from each other, with the first tournament starting at 5:45 a.m. When viewed from space, these interconnected tournament towns may or may not form the shape of an evil-looking goat sporting an inverted pentagram tattoo, or perhaps even a coded message translating into What if I told you that ruining your weekends would not get your child into Stanford, foolish mortals, ha ha ho ho ha?”

Don’t worry, things get worse — especially as we move up the age scale. Just last night, I was talking to a dear friend who informed me that it costs $2,500 for eleven-year-old girls to join the local volleyball league. If your name is not Colonel Baron Von Oligarch McMoneybags, you likely recognize that this is deranged. (Actually, even Colonel McMoneybags would recognize that this is deranged. How do you think he got so rich? It certainly wasn’t from wasting capital on overpriced volleyball leagues for fifth graders!)

“Across the nation, kids of all skill levels, in virtually every team sport, are getting swept up by a youth-sports economy that increasingly resembles the pros at early ages,” Time reported last year. This phenomenon presents a host of problems, including the sad fact that kids from lower income levels are often shut out of a beloved tradition that frequently no longer exists: The low-key, low-cost, “We won’t try to turn you into a harried and jaded athletic professional at the age of eight” kids’ sports league.

Don’t get me wrong: I like sports! I like playing sports. I like watching sports, as long as they are not soccer. I think organized sports for kids are fine, at least in moderation — but moderation, it seems, is not the American way. One should not be attending 13 lacrosse practices a week.

James Breakwell, the author of the funny new book Bare Minimum Parenting: The Ultimate Guide to Not Quite Ruining Your Child, sees today’s amped-up children’s sports for what they are: “The only things in the universe besides black holes that can literally destroy time.” As an aside, I thoroughly enjoyed Breakwell’s book, even though I did not agree with everything in it. For instance, you should not “let your kids use screens as much as they want,” because that would destroy their lives and melt their brain. Furthermore, you should not give your child a candy bar when they whine, as Breakwell advises. Instead, at the first hint of whining, you should imperiously declare “Whining Does Not Get You What You Want” and move on with your day.

Regardless, these are small quibbles, and Breakwell’s book is entertaining and lighthearted and fun, making it a ray of light in a world where many writers take themselves so dreadfully seriously I get embarrassed for them just thinking about it. With that in mind, let’s get back to the true genius of Bare Minimum Parenting, which is of course where Breakwell agrees with me: the topic of organized children’s sports.

“If you’re a sports parent, don’t take all this as a personal attack on you,” Breakwell writes, after listing the myriad problems that sprout from today’s crazed, over-the-top sports leagues. “I’m not here to destroy your life. You’re doing a good enough job of that on your own. I’m merely trying to give you the greatest gift one parent can bestow upon another: your weekends back.”

Here I will suggest the greatest gift you might possibly give yourself and your children this holiday season, particularly if you are stressed out, overscheduled, and overwhelmed: The gift of doing nothing. Try it for a semester! Try it for a month! It might just change your life. Maybe you could go out to breakfast. Maybe you could sleep in. Maybe you could take a hike. Maybe you could have a family dinner! And if you feel weak, just remember one helpful chart found in Bare Minimum Parenting, helpfully entitled “Number of Soccer Games Attended by the Parents of Famous Historical Figures.” The answer, of course, is zero. Doing nothing, it turns out, has been hot for a long time.

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