On Sunday mornings, my husband and I drive our three sons to Mass. We pass by a school parking lot filled with cars at the bright hour of nine a.m. In spring, the soccer field is dotted with black-and-white balls, and the baseball diamond swarms with kids in jerseys. In fall, the football field is packed with small bodies weighed down by shoulder pads and spherical helmets.
Whatever the season, harried parents can be seen carrying gear bags, lawn chairs, and cups of coffee to their designated locations, bracing themselves for a long day of games and matches.
Every Sunday morning, all I can think is, “I’m so happy that’s not me.”
My kids don’t play any team sports, and I will be eternally grateful if I can survive my tenure as a parent of minor-aged children without ever having to travel to an out-of-state tournament, shiver on metal bleachers on the side of a field in November, or attend a bloated sports banquet to applaud for the recipients of engraved trophies.
I know this is an unpopular opinion at best. In certain parts of the country, saying that you hope your kids never play sports is sacrilege (especially if, like me, you have three strapping boys). But in our family of five, we can barely get through our day-to-day lives as they are now, without the complication of an all-consuming commitment to athletics.
Make no mistake: to participate in youth sports today, with ever-increasing expectations placed upon even elementary-grade athletes, is a commitment.
What used to be a pleasant pastime has turned, for many kids, into an exercise in rigor and near-obsession. Kids as young as 11 are becoming highly-specialized athletes, qualifying for select teams that require hours of travel every week (in addition to their regular team obligations).
Participation in supplementary sports clinics and camps is now often considered a requirement for players wishing to maintain or advance their position on the team. Overuse injuries are common and often lead to life-long consequences, such as early-onset arthritis.
Is it any wonder that some parents might find all of this incredibly unappealing? That some, like myself, might simply choose to opt out?
I considered signing my oldest son up for a team sport when he was five. He’d never asked to play a sport of any kind, but fearing that he was missing out on a valuable childhood experience (or worse, that I was depriving him of one), I checked out the local little league options in our town.
For an hour, I tried to figure out how I could make it work for our family. Monetary concerns aside (and there were plenty of those in the form of registration fees and gear costs), several nights a week my son would return home past his bedtime due to practice. Our weekends would be devoured by games. Sure, it was only for three months, but was it worth it? Did I want to sacrifice the well-tuned order of our household so my sports-neutral child could play baseball?
The answer was easy. No, I didn’t.
Child development specialists detail a long list of potential outcomes for kids who participate in team sports, including learning to work cooperatively, an increased ability to problem solve, higher self-esteem and confidence, improved critical thinking, and better time management skills. None of those outcomes are guaranteed, but they do have a clear connection to athletics and many parents do see those outcomes manifest in their kids.
But was playing a team sport the one and only way for my son to acquire those skills? And what if he didn’t even like baseball? I wasn’t comfortable sacrificing our precious time, money, and energy on what seemed like a big gamble.
So I didn’t sign him up for anything. Instead, I watched our friends with kids enroll in T-ball or youth soccer or junior basketball. I heard their complaints about conflicting game schedules and unfair coaches, their laments about registration costs, travel teams, and private training. I saw them struggle to find the time for family dinners, homework, play dates, and weekly worship. Their color-coded calendar squares, filled to bursting, made me queasy.
I didn’t want to be like them.
It’s been two years, and I still feel the same way. Our calendar gets busy – there are five of us, after all, and we have varying interests and obligations. However, our schedule is very much of our own making; we control it, it doesn’t control us.
Any non-sport activities we choose to partake in as my kids get older – stage plays, debate teams, art workshops, robotics clubs – won’t carry the same highly-pressurized, 24/7 expectations that youth athletics do. We will be able to decide what to commit to, and how much, and when.
Increasingly, it feels like those options are disappearing for families who participate in team sports. Kids who miss games or practices for other obligations (even legitimate ones, like community service, orthodontic appointments, Great Grandma’s 95th birthday, or religious education classes) are often penalized by their coaches.
One day, my son – or one of his brothers – might want to play a sport. If he expresses a sincere desire, I won’t immediately squash his interest. We’ll sit down and talk about it as a family, because unless something changes in today’s youth sports culture, we will all have to give some things up if one or more of my sons wants to play for a team. If we agreed to be a “sports family” together, I would do what all loving parents do: set aside my own preferences in favor of my child’s interests and root for him enthusiastically from the sidelines.
In the meantime, though, I will keep passing by that busy school parking lot on Sunday mornings, thinking, “I’m so happy that’s not me.”