Upfront Home
In This Issue
News and Trends
Times Past
The Ethicist
Teen Voices
Upfront Topics
Magazine Info

Have Youth Sports Become Too Intense?

The time and energy youth sports require—along with injuries—are on the rise

It's not just adults who think youth sports have become too intense in recent years. A lot of kids think so too.

In 2006, the Minnesota Youth Soccer Association polled young players about behavior they had observed at sports games. Specifically, kids were asked about how the adults—parents, coaches, and fans—were behaving. More than a third said they had been yelled at or teased by a fan; 15 percent said their parents get angry when they play poorly.

When Sports Illustrated for Kids asked similar questions in 2001, the feedback was no less disturbing: 74 percent of the kids surveyed said they had witnessed out-of-control adults at their games.

This sort of behavior is taking an emotional toll. Researchers at Michigan State University have studied the attrition rates among youth athletes: 70 percent drop out by age 13. Some just decide they like piano or Justin Bieber more. But many told researchers that sports weren't much fun.

There are also physical risks when sports become too intense. Half of all sports injuries among kids each year are caused by simple overuse, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. These injuries—stress fractures, ruptured ligaments, and growth-plate injuries* — can be quite serious, and many can cause lifelong problems. They're all avoidable with rest and moderation.

I know more than I'd like to about injuries that happen when youth sports become too intense. When my son was 18, he ruptured an elbow ligament while pitching for his high school baseball team. At the time, he was playing for three different baseball teams in three different seasons. I wish I'd realized then how excessive that was.

Mark Hyman, author
Until It Hurts: America's Obsession With Youth Sports

Those who argue that youth sports are too intense point mostly to two factors: the amount of time they require and the pressure that they place on young athletes. These are the very qualities, however, that make youth sports so valuable to those who participate.

Youth sports today are indeed a big investment: The time, money, and energy required are tremendous. But reward always requires investment. The principle is the same whether we're talking about the monetary rewards that come with financial investments or the intrinsic rewards that come from investing in youth sports.

Young athletes who spend countless hours training at their sport learn the value of discipline and commitment. There is simply no way other than tireless repetition to learn the skills necessary to succeed in competitive athletics. When an athlete performs well as a result of this kind of disciplined training, he or she develops genuine self-confidence.

With parents shouting from the sidelines and college scouts watching every play, high-level competitions are packed with pressure. But when managed well, this pressure can bring out the best in young athletes.

To successfully compete in this environment, young athletes must develop mechanisms for blocking out distractions and concentrating only on the details relevant to performance. Then the pressure of all the eyes looking on can be harnessed as motivation to compete harder and perform better. Instead of being held back by the pressure, young athletes learn to thrive under pressure.

In the soccer club I work for, I've seen countless kids achieve their potential as a result of all their hard work. It's the intensity that makes youth sports so valuable. tk

Nathan Pitcock
Chicago Magic Soccer Club

*Growth plates are areas of growing tissue at the ends of children's leg and arm bones. They are the weakest part of a young person's skeleton.

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, February 21, 2011)