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Is it a pipe dream to believe we can set a new youth sports culture?
When I was 12, I was cut from my community’s select softball team, in suburban Maryland. When I was seventeen, I was one of the top recruited softball players in my state, and earned a full scholarship to play for the University of Georgia. I tell you that story for a couple of reasons. First, think about that. A kid is cut at 12 who earns a full ride at 17. This was in the 1990s. I would argue that in today’s sporting culture, that 12-year-old gives up the sport, and never throws a softball again, convinced she lacks talent. She would miss out on years of fun summer teams and lifelong friendships.
Second, that scholarship didn’t work out. I was in a situation that didn’t fit, and I transferred to Virginia Tech, where I donned the orange and maroon and happily played with no scholarship money. Those shiny scholarships that are whispered promises by travel coaches are mostly a mirage. Even in my case, where I was in the less than one percent (one percent!) of kids who earn them, it wasn’t to be.
I’m on the other side now, in the bleachers, on the sideline and pool deck watching my four kids compete in everything from swimming to soccer, lacrosse and basketball. My oldest is 16 and my youngest is eight, and I’ve logged enough hours at the stands and on the field that I believe I have something to say on the importance of sports, the role of parents and those shiny scholarship promises. Mostly, I’ve learned by getting it all wrong. But if you want to start on the second base, instead of fumbling around in the on-deck circle, here’s my advice for parents of young kids as you start in the sporting game.
Save travel sports for middle or high school.
Yes, you can find travel sports programs for six-year-olds, and no, you shouldn’t do it. Every parent thinks his or her kid is the next LeBron James, Alex Morgan or Tiger Woods. You have a better chance of winning the lottery or being struck by lightning than grooming the next super athlete. Allow your kid to explore as many things as possible in elementary school. Sign up for flag football, the neighborhood swim team, t-ball, whatever your local rec organization provides. Signing up for travel sports in the first grade is a fear-based parenting response — you see the neighbor do it, you fear your kid won’t keep up. I say this because I’ve done it and wish I’d chosen differently. Truly exceptional talent will rise to the top, but only if they aren’t burned out on travel lacrosse by fifth grade.
Focus on individual progress and team values, not results.
Before they’ve left elementary school, a young athlete is convinced of his or her prowess, or lack thereof, often because of feedback from parents and coaches. Kids develop at different paces, and puberty is a game changer. Don’t take any of it too seriously so early, and restructure your car conversations before and after practices and games. Ask if they had fun. Tell them something you notice that they did better than last week, or last year. And hammer home that we play sports to learn how to be a teammate, to understand what hard work means, to weather challenges. My two youngest are swimmers, and no sport is better at championing individual improvement. Maybe you didn’t win the race, but did you shave a second off your time? Amazing! Your goal should be to create a love of movement, because a kid who loves moving his or her body will be healthier for life.
Banish your scholarship dreams.
I don’t mean squash your kid’s scholarship dreams—if they, independent of you, are working towards a college scholarship because the motivation comes from an internal fire that burns inside them and it’s achievable based on their talent level, wonderful. If you have employed a private coach and set up a mandatory practice schedule so you can earn them a scholarship, not wonderful. Again, the cream always rises to the top. Truly incredible talent and the right mix of intangibles will find the path. If a scholarship is the only worthy outcome, your family will most likely be disappointed, and what a shame — there were likely so many victories along the way.
With a lot of parenting trial and error, I’ve learned that when my kids stand on that high school graduation stage, I want to know I supported them, without pushing them toward goals that were really mine. It’s spring season, parents. Let’s cut up the oranges and buy the Gatorade, and cheer them on. Sports really should be fun. Let’s let every young athlete have the chance to share in it.
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