American parents have become obsessed with their children being good at sports

Nearly 40 million kids play organized team sports in the US. For many of them, that means practice multiple times a week (sometimes late into the night), weekend games, and stiff competition to win a coveted spot on the local travel team or private club.

It might mean driving hours to a single game or flying around the country for tournaments. Younger siblings, meanwhile, are left vying for their parents attention.

It can also extract an emotional and physical toll on the young athletes. Dr. William Meehan, director of The Micheli Center for Sports Injury Prevention in Waltham, Massachusetts, said in the last five years, the number of kids being treated there for overuse injuries has grown from zero to 52% of the entire practice.

“I have kids that are playing hockey at 10 at night and they are nine years old,” said Dr. Frank Sileo, a child psychologist in Ridgewood, New Jersey. “There are games on religious holidays or Mother’s Day; there’s no boundary anymore. It’s like sports takes priority over all else.”

 At 13, Jack has practice every night and often three or four games on the weekends. 

Parents say they realize this lifestyle can be crazy, but don’t want to let go. Sarah Dorn’s son Jack, plays soccer, basketball, and baseball on both school and club teams in Portland, Oregon. At 13, he has practice every night and often three or four games on the weekend in multiple sports. Sometimes he has to play three games in one day.

Always one of the top players, a year ago the pressure started to get to him. If he didn’t excel when he came up to bat in baseball, he was overcome with disappointment and anger. Instead of taking him out of the sport, Sarah and her husband Jeff took him to see a sports psychologist. The psychologist helped Jack relax and stay in the game.

“We questioned if we were crazy for doing this,” Dorn said. “But the sports are so good for keeping him on track with school and he has made so many friends.”

Though evidence is mostly anecdotal, it’s an obsession recognized by many American parents, especially those in the suburbs where sports seem to trump all else. Experts estimate (paywall) families spend nearly $10 billion a year on travel for youth sports. And there are enough families caught up in the frenzy to create a significant and growing $6 billion-a-year industry in private youth coaching. Parents are also enrolling their kids in pricey specialty camps for the summer, and some are taking their kids to sports psychologists to help them keep their emotions under control on the field.

 “We questioned if we were crazy for doing this,” Dorn said. 

“Instead of playing sports for fun, there is now an emphasis on being good. The star athlete gets all the attention,” said Meehan.

So what’s driving this focus on sports? If the goal was a lucrative college scholarship or even the lofty dream of going pro, it would at least make some sense. But just 1% of high school athletes in America receive a division one scholarship. Moreover, when asked, parents say they are aware of these odds and don’t necessarily even want their kids to play in college, where the demands placed on the athletes are ramped up even further.

Rather, parents say that playing team sports is a fun way to stay in shape. It helps kids develop a strong work ethic, make friends, and fill up their time with something productive so they don’t say, spend their afternoons hanging at the mall or smoking and drinking. A recent study found that high school female athletes were 92% less likely to do drugs and three times more likely to graduate than their non-sporty peers.

“Youth sports is the foundation of our culture,” said Jordan Fliegel, a former professional basketball player and the founder of Coach Up, a private coaching company that started in 2011 and already has more than 200,000 clients across the country. “You get to be part of a team and learn life lessons. Athletes are more successful later in life.”

Other factors, beyond the health and social benefits of sports for children, could be at play too, and those are the feelings parents experience watching their child perform on the field. They become almost addictive. The combination of two deep American passions, sports and kids, can result in a heady mix that pushes parents to go to great lengths to see their kids play.

 “Youth sports is the foundation of our culture.” 

“You get a high out of watching your child out there,” said Lisa Delpy Neirotti, a professor of sports management at George Washington University, who is planning a study on this subject.

Denise Wilson, a Brooklyn mom with two kids in competitive sports, admits she is addicted to watching her children play.

“If I can’t go to a game, I’ll have this weird sadness and I don’t know what to do with myself,” said Wilson.

Like so many families, the Wilsons’ lives revolve around their kids’ sports. Her 14-year-old son Liam, has been playing club soccer since he was seven, while his sister, Ella, 12, is a competitive gymnast. The family doesn’t see their grandparents or attend relatives’ birthday parties during the fall and spring because there are always soccer games.

Liam, now on his high school team and his club team, has practice every day and often plays two games a day on the weekends. For a while he took additional private lessons with his coach, a special perk offered only to the best players. On holiday weekends the family drives to tournaments up and down the East Coast, and in the summer Liam attends specialty soccer camps, some which you need to try out for.

 “It’s like a machine that wraps you up. Our lives revolve around this schedule.” 

His sister’s schedule is just as busy, except her meets are in further away places, like Orlando. She practices after school for three hours on Manhattan’s west side. To get her there, Ms. Wilson, who works full time, takes her lunch hour at 4:00 pm so she can buy sushi for her daughter, meet her at the subway station, and get her to practice on time before rushing back to the office.

“It’s like a machine that wraps you up,” Wilson said. “Our lives revolve around this schedule.”

Frank Sileo, the child psychologist, said parents are actually living in fear of their kids’ coaches, to the point of neglecting their kids’ emotional health.

“People are cancelling appointments for their depressed kid because they can’t miss practice because then their coach won’t play them,” Sileo said.

As the demands to play get more and more intense, some families are opting out of sports all together. But many parents seem willing to do almost anything to keep up.

“Do you want to be the one who says ‘no,’ that it’s not healthy for your family to be spending their summer weekends at tournaments?” said Mike DeAnzeris, a former division one coach, who is now an entrepreneur.

Both DeAnzeris’ kids, eight and five, play competitive hockey in Saratoga, New York. Though practices and games are now just a few times a week, he is worried about the future when his kids get older and the demands on players become much greater.

“We’re scared our children will be left behind if we don’t do it, ” he said.

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