Kids’ sports: How parents are trying to put the fun back in play
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Kids’ sports: How parents are trying to put the fun back in play

The 2008 recession drove communities to cut public sports programs, giving rise to a surge in pay-for-play athletics. The youth sports industry “is a now $19 billion annual business,” says Tommy Dorsch, a scholar at Utah State University’s Families in Sport Lab. “That’s larger than the NBA, NFL, or NHL. And a lot of that is built on selling hope.”

That hope draws in families with the allure of college scholarships and dreams of professional sports careers, driving up the stakes for young athletes, and driving out the fun. 

Why We Wrote This

Amid increasing pressure to treat youth sports like a career, some families and educators are pushing back – demanding playtime be fun again, and offering solutions to make it equitable and affordable.

Melanie Redd knows it well, as the parent of a gifted athlete – and the strength coach at Chaminade Julienne Catholic High School in Dayton, Ohio. “At this point,” says Ms. Redd, “the situation is out of control.” Parents are paying people to train their kids, and these folks are telling the parents “their kids’ ceiling is the professional level.” In fact, she says, “the vast majority of these kids’ ceilings is doing well in high school.”

At Tuscarora High School in Frederick, Maryland, administrators are trying something new: using daily flex periods to offer students a chance to try out sports of their choosing. The school’s soccer coach also implemented a no-cut policy on his varsity team and guaranteed game time for every player. 

“Upfront honesty, continued conversations throughout the season with players, and good record-keeping were [the coach’s] best tools,” says Athletic Director Howard Putterman, “and the parents and players for the most part jumped at the chance to be a part of this.”

Melanie Redd is feeling the heat as coaches and other parents set their eyes on her daughter Laila, an athletically gifted 12-year-old. From basketball, touch football, and volleyball, to family ski and snowboarding vacations, Laila loves sports – and seems to excel at most everything she tries. 

But the world of youth sports has become a pressure cooker – one that, for now, the Redds have managed to resist. “All we ask when she comes home,” says Ms. Redd, “is how was practice and did you have fun?”

Others around the Redds aren’t so laid back. When Laila was 10 years old and shooting baskets at a local gym, she was approached by a male coach who gave Laila his card and told her he wanted her on his travel team.

Why We Wrote This

Amid increasing pressure to treat youth sports like a career, some families and educators are pushing back – demanding playtime be fun again, and offering solutions to make it equitable and affordable.

That experience unsettled Ms. Redd. She didn’t appreciate a male stranger approaching her daughter and giving her his number – and she was angry that an adult would bypass the parents about a decision that potentially could involve thousands of dollars.

Ms. Redd is also feeling the heat from other parents and coaches who want to know when Laila is going to “commit” to a “principle” sport, and the year-round training that comes with it. It’s necessary, she’s told by others, to help Laila earn a college scholarship.