Many of you may have seen the article: “The Mad, Mad World of Niche Sports Among Ivy League–Obsessed Parents” that was published last weekend in The Atlantic. Not the most flattering title, and one that hits close to home as it specifically focuses on the youth sports scene in Fairfield County.
As an educator – and as a collegiate All-American and lifelong athlete for whom sports has been an integral and critical part of my life – I have been long bothered by the trend of specialization in youth athletics, fueled in part by parental anxiety, belief in the debatable 10,000 hours maxim, and the economic interests of coaches. As I have referenced in my remarks at the last two Annual Meetings (2019, 2020), so much of this thinking is short-sighted and detrimental to student growth despite existing under the guise of long-term goals.
As the article details, there are several worrying aspects of hyper-specialization from the perspective of long-term wellness and achievement for our children. Burnout, an inability to cope with adversity, lifelong injuries, a lack of individual initiative and presence, and a sense of entitlement all surfaced in the article. None of those benefit children in the long-term, athletically or otherwise.
At NCCS, we strive to do better. Our sports program is based on participation where everyone plays and has access to excellent coaching. It allows students to choose multiple sports throughout three seasons each year and focuses on the educational benefits of athletics: sportsmanship and fundamentals, game strategies and practice habits, leadership and teamwork, all more important than win-loss records. Even though we have our share of winning records and undefeated seasons, at the ages we educate, we choose to focus on the most important components of strong athletics education.
All of that said, I recognize that there is ample environmental pressure pushing specialization within the merry-go-round of individual coaching, elite team membership, exciting potential for the future, and keeping up with the Joneses. It is difficult to know exactly what to believe or how to proceed. I have some suggestions:
Let the child take the lead.
In order to achieve at the highest level, one needs to love the sport so deeply that one almost eats and breathes it. That only comes from within. Listen to your child and follow their lead in terms of how much to dedicate to any one activity.
Related: Since children are often people-pleasers, especially seeking their parents’ approval, it may be hard to differentiate between the child’s true interest and what they say. So, “listen” to your child in other ways. Take note of how they spend their free time. Do they pick up that tennis racquet or kick that soccer ball? Watch what they do with their friends when they are together. Over time, interests emerge naturally. Allow those to direct your decision making.
Allow them time to settle in – but encourage them to finish what they start.
When children are young, following their lead may mean flitting from one sport to the next. Be okay with stopping one and starting another, but make sure to do that in between seasons and not in the middle. We want our children to understand the importance of completing their commitments and sticking with something even if they do not like it or they are not immediately good at it.
Play multiple sports.
There are so many complementary skills – psychological for sure, but physical as well – in different sports that experience in one impacts another. Learning to shift your weight on a golf swing helps you kick a soccer ball harder and more accurately; cutting off a shooting angle in lacrosse will help you learn to play better zone defense in basketball. Playing multiple sports also reduces the likelihood of chronic injuries since different sports use various muscles in different ways.
Free, creative time with the sport pays dividends.
Overcoaching can sometimes stifle creativity and can impact enjoyment. Provide space for children to “just play” the sport, both individually and collectively. A pickup game can be the best way to try a new move and prepares the athlete for the unpredictability of game situations.
There is time: the later bloomer often makes the biggest impact.
There is ample fear that those who have more experience will be better and have more opportunity. That is true at the younger ages, but the student who loves the sport enough to dedicate themselves to it and can apply the strategies and skills of one to another has the highest ceiling. One of the most impactful quotes from the article comes from the men’s lacrosse coach at the University of Virginia regarding room for growth.
Give yourself a break.
You are not going to get every decision right as a parent. It is ok. The stakes may feel high when you listen to other parents and to some coaches, but they are not. You can always make a different decision the next time – to cut back on one team or to add in another training session. Like squeezing too hard on a handful of Play-Doh, the more pressure you put on yourself to be perfect, the less actually remains in your hands.