Going Back To The Future of Youth Sports

I have spent a significant part of my life, but by no means all of it, involved in youth sports. I have played almost all of the sports that there are, and in my younger days I was even involved in creating a few out of thin air.

Of course, those were the days when kids would get together and just decide to shoot some hoops, hit a few balls or try to kick a ball around. When we weren’t inventing a new game, we usually modified an existing one to fit the “field” available to us, which was often the street or a parking lot, and we took advantage of the materials we had such as making a ball out of a wad of socks held together with rubber bands. At that stage in our lives we never once had an adult control, much less “supervise” our athletic undertakings, and no one ever paid a single cent to anyone to play any game, anywhere, ever. We did spend an incredible amount of time practicing on our own and we did become quite good — outstanding, in fact, for some of us — at a number of sports.

Time passed, and most of us became involved in more organized sports in school, including college, and some in organized sports outside of school. Basically, in those days you had to pay for your own uniform and equipment, but that was about it. We had coaches, some of whom were great, and we had regular league play, tournaments and championships, which could on occasion have a relatively small additional cost attached when we could not find enough parents to drive us all around. All the adults, with the exception of the coaches who worked for the schools, were volunteers. And all of the adults, without exception, were themselves very much into sports and athletics.

Most important, though, all of the adults sought to instill in the kids the benefits of youth sports — such as learning to work as a team, putting forth one’s best efforts, and respect for others — as a means of developing kids into mature, productive adults. In other words, they had perspective. In my entire “career” as a player, I never had or even met a coach who did not “lecture” the team and the players about keeping their grades up and being responsible in everything in their lives.

Time passed, and we all began to establish careers and families. Those old “lectures” from the coaches and other adults involved in youth sports began to pay off, as it now became obvious that while sports were a good adjunct, education was the key. Among our groups of “players” from days gone by are doctors, lawyers, engineers, social workers, an artist and even a physicist. Some of the players also did quite well in sports — very, very well in fact. But none of them ever made the mistake of betting it all on them being the one in million or more who makes it big in professional sports. As a result, none of them ended up missing the rich and varied opportunities that arise in the course of a life. And we all kept playing sports in one form or another.

Time passed, and my involvement in youth sports evolved into participating mostly by officiating baseball and especially soccer, and less as a player. It also evolved into more and more volunteering to manage and administer youth sports. I found myself now one of the adults trying to give as many kids — rich, poor, tall, short, fast, slow — the huge advantages to them as people that youth sports properly viewed can provide. I became one of the adults “lecturing” the kids to keep their grades up, stay away from alcohol and act responsibly in all facets of their lives.

Time again has passed and tragically there has crept into youth sports a small but disproportionately destructive element that has lost the perspective of viewing youth sports as being for kids to develop them as people and perverted it into kids as a commodity for the development of a sports machine that is really just a business. For some, sadly, youth sports went from a game for kids to a movement to “acquire” kids for “the” game. Competitive tryouts and play for eight-year-olds? High fees for trainers of prepubescent kids? Tryouts, league play, tournaments and all-consuming commitments and travel at the expense of, and in the place of, education? Youth sports marketed like consumer products with glittering but unrealistic and — ultimately for almost all, if not all, empty — promises of riches and fame? It is time for all involved to pause, to remember, and recommit to the perspective of youth sports as an endeavor for the kids.

As the above indicates, I have been involved in youth sports for many, many years. Sometimes I and the thousands who share my view of youth sports as a tool to develop kids into adults are told that we are not “progressives,” our day has passed and that we are not “with” the future of youth sports. Nice-sounding hyperbole and propaganda, but nothing more.

Our view is the future of youth sports. Values of true moral and social worth persevere despite the attacks on them. Abraham Lincoln was right — you can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.