Is It Ever Too Much?

By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck

Years ago, one of my sons was coaching a 10U travel baseball team in Southern California. The day after Thanksgiving the families on the team (and he) had to leave at 4:30 AM to drive to Las Vegas for a tournament there. My daughter’s soccer club hosted a Thanksgiving tournament attended by teams from out of state, as young as U7. Aside from Christmas, New Years and Thanksgiving, there doesn’t seem to be a day off for kids playing competitive sports.

Some may say that this is a great thing. What is the downside of kids playing the sports they love? The more they play, the better they become and the less opportunity there is for them to find trouble. We all love sports for the lessons it teaches and the healthy lifestyle it promotes. So how can there be too much of a good thing?

Our family used to have to pull our kids out of grade and middle school early to travel to tournaments. When my boys got into high school and college, the entire team routinely missed classes to go to away games or series’. I can’t count how many school nights over the years we got home from games so late that homework was either done well past midnight, or not at all. Obviously, learning and grades have to suffer in these instances. And maybe more importantly, it is one thing to preach that school is the priority over sports, but it is difficult to convince kids we mean it when we’re allowing them to skip education time because of it.

Injury can occur in children who only play occasionally – it is not just the competitive players who get hurt. However the most common youth sports-related injuries in the past decade are from overuse, such as stress fractures and tendinitis. These injuries are the body’s way of saying we’re pushing too hard, that we need a rest. Kids who participate in 15-20 hours of sports per week are far more susceptible.

I remember one weekend, before any of our four kids could drive, that they each had out-of-town tournaments – all at different locations. My daughter was essentially handed off to another family on the soccer team for the weekend, my wife took one son to his baseball games and I had to arrange a meeting at a gas station just off the freeway to provide a ride for another son. When multiple kids are involved, family becomes secondary to athletics. Time spent together is virtually non-existent. As kids get older and their sports more competitive, there is rarely time for vacation, church – even dinners together are often a luxury. And younger kids in tow often get the worst of it. When my daughter was a pre-schooler her weekends often consisted of sitting on hot aluminum bleachers at a dusty baseball field from morning to night both Saturday and Sunday.

And of course, the more kids play, the more we risk burnout. I feel fortunate not to have had any personal experience with this issue but there are plenty of young athletes for whom fun and games somehow seemed to become life and death. Enjoyment was replaced by stress and anxiety. And they quit playing altogether as a result.

Some parents probably have the perspective that even if a kid plays competitive sports from age 8-18, that’s just ten years out of a lifetime. They’ll be grown up and done before you know it and we’ll wish we had more opportunities to see them play. Even though my wife and I often longed for a lazy weekend together as a family with no games on the schedule, when we could maybe just go to the beach, we never pulled in the reigns. Part of the reason is this is what our kids loved to do. And part is that with so many kids competing for so few spots, you feel like you can’t take time off or you’ll fall behind. Whether this non-stop activity in today’s youth sports culture is good or bad, one thing seems clear: It doesn’t look like it will change any time soon. And guess what? Now, we can go to the beach any Saturday we want.

Brian Gotta is a former professional recreational youth baseball coach and volunteer Little League coach and board member. He is President of Help Kids Play, a collection of companies whose mission is to further the development and enjoyment of youth sports.

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