The Problem With Youth Sports

I love it when a pitcher throws an inside fastball because the batter is crowding the plate. These words are an inside fastball, and the person at the plate is any adult who is around youth sports—back the heck up!

I remember when a ground rule double meant that the ball went into the neighbor's bushes, and a home run was when the ball cleared the tree line. But that’s all a thing of the past. Now, we need official scores and stats, proper officiating, and regulation-size fields, because it's about something more; it’s more personal now. It’s not two kids having an argument about which one was the first to touch the Pepsi can that we used as third base. It’s about status, family name, and rank. It’s about walking away with a championship because too much has been invested to be average.

Something has gone seriously wrong with youth sports. I know some Little League teams that have travel schedules comparable to the Yankees. And for what? It can’t be so they can compete with the best and one day get a full ride to college. That logic doesn’t make sense, because many people are investing more money into youth sports than it would cost for a four-year degree; this behavior goes deeper than a scholarship.

I hope that you understand that I’m not calling you out; I’m calling us all out. I’ve experienced that prideful feeling when my girls have had a good game. I’ve also secretly prayed that they perform well because I’ve believed the lie that their performance is a reflection on me. I know what it’s like to buy the best gear, pay for lessons, and secretly hope that one day they will get a scholarship. But this type of behavior is cancer to youth sports—it’s cancer to our relationships.

We have turned youth sports into a stock exchange where we expect our investments to pay off.  People are fighting at little league events because it’s not just a leisure activity anymore, it’s a forum where people gather to see how their investments perform. If a parent knows they have a high stock, they try to move that athlete from the Nasdaq (regular sports team) to the New York Stock Exchange (travel team).

I hope you don’t miss my point. I believe in winning and losing (kids need to learn how to fail too). I think that sports give us an opportunity to show kids that hard work and dedication pays off. I also believe that travel teams provide excellent opportunities for good athletes to become even better. But I’m disappointed that we have abandoned everything that was special about backyard baseball and pickup basketball games—parents weren’t emotionally and financially invested and didn’t expect a return on investment.

We are all to blame. This problem isn’t just with parents who secretly want Division 1 athletes. We have taken youth sports to a new level of complexity. What used to require a pair of shoes and an old glove from the attic has turned into a $600 investment for a seven-game season. It’s no longer the washed up, semi-pro dad, who still plays softball on the weekends, giving the umpire hell. It’s now the single mom who works two jobs so her child can participate. It’s hard not to be emotionally involved when you know each pitch costs about $8.00.

We all need to back away from the plate and reevaluate what we are doing to youth sports. I don’t know all the answers, but admitting there is a problem is a good start.

-mark bland