Youth Sports: Toxic or Transformative? Part 1

An Introduction

When asked about their youth sports experiences, many people will report nothing but good things. Some will say they always had great experiences, and that sports molded them into resilient, respectful, and resourceful individuals. Others, will say youth sports destroyed their confidence, body image, and overall well-being. Most people lie somewhere in the middle, agreeing that youth sports provided valuable life lessons but also caused some harm.

YMCA logo, where many participate in youth sports
I had an amazing YMCA coach who made us chant “caring honesty, respect, responsibility” before each game. Johnny, if you’re reading this, thanks for being such a great coach.

I reached out to a bunch of friends and my Instagram followers to ask about their youth sports experiences, and to see how they may have shaped their relationship with food and their bodies. They said the following:

  • “I grew up in a larger body, and my coaches would always call me lazy and unmotivated to my face, despite doing the drills that everyone else was doing. Behind my back, their comments were even less kind. My confidence was shot for years.”
  • “I was always cautioned not to gain weight, even as my body naturally changed during puberty. My coaches may not have directly told me to watch my weight often, but it was definitely implied. It messed up my eating habits for a long time.”
  • “My [dance] coach used to tell me that, ‘you can have the best personality in the world, but if you don’t look good, it doesn’t matter.’ In ballet, we also had to wear tight clothes so that our instructors could see the lines of our bodies. Most people don’t naturally have the “ideal” ballet body type, so they put tons of pressure on us to fit that ideal.”
  • “I was told that my sports injuries were the result of my weight, and that if I lost weight I wouldn’t have pain. Now that I look back on that as an adult, I know that was completely false.”
  • “Youth sports f***ing suck, man. They were at terrible experience for me in so many ways. Parents played this dumb political game to get their kids more playing time, and I wasn’t able to hang out with some of childhood friends because of it. Youth sports divide people more than they bring them together.”
  • “There was a weight limit in youth football. If you didn’t weigh at or below that weight limit, you had to be on the offensive or defensive line, no exceptions. Some kids that wanted to play certain positions limited their intake in the weeks leading up to the weigh in at 10 and 11 years old.”
  • “One of my coaches purposely ran us so hard during the first couple of practices that some of us would throw up. Whenever someone did, he would laugh wickedly like it was the funniest thing he had ever seen. It was harsh and cruel, but widely accepted in our community.”
Brittany Spears cringing

Of course, we humans tend to remember the negative aspects of our experiences over the positives. The above instances stood out to people because of their negative emotions, but it seems likely that each of these people also got at least one positive thing out of their youth sports careers.

I see tremendous value in getting kids together to work toward a common goal, and I appreciate the idea of pushing kids to get better at something. I believe in sports’ ability to build up kids’ toughness, perseverance, tenacity, and grit, and I am glad participated as a little one. However, I also see how youth sports can cause incredible damage, especially to kids in larger bodies. I believe some reform could make youth sports even more beneficial.

As this piece was coming together, it turned out that I had more to say than I originally anticipated. So, welcome to the first 2 part blog post. Check out part 2!

Benefits of Youth Sports

Before I dive into the negative consequences youth sports can have on a kid’s life, let’s talk about the good things that can come out of youth sports. For starters, participation in sports as a young adult is associated with higher grades1, a better perception of school in general, and a higher rate of physical activity in adult life.2 Plus, participating in sports gives kids more chances to get physical activity in a safe environment and join a team.

Old times report card

Physical activity in childhood and beyond has tremendous benefits for our physical and mental health. Organized sports can help children develop cognitive and social skills. Those who play sports in high school are more likely to go to college, and high school athletes are less likely to smoke and feel loneliness or isolation. Many kids also experience a noticeable boost in self-esteem, although the opposite rings true in certain situations surrounding youth sports. 2

When youth sports can avoid becoming a toxic environment, which we will cover later, they can set kids of all ages up for success in many areas of life. Keep in mind, though, that being involved in a sport as a young adult doesn’t necessarily cause these outcomes. Perhaps kids who play sports have parents that also emphasize academics. Or maybe kids who participate in sports come from families of higher incomes, so they have more academic resources available to them anyway.

Many saying "What is up with all of these books?"

Either way, there correlation between sports and academic success exists, and I encourage enrolling kids in organized sports. Many moments from my youth and high school sports career created fond memories. As with everything, however, organized sports also come with some risks, especially when community politics and parental egos get involved.

The Hostile Youth Sports Environment

When I think back to my own youth sports career, I remember the elitist nature of it all. Some parents complained that kids who had never played basketball before wanted to try out for the 7th grade school league. For some reason, they deemed it ridiculous that a kid with little experience in the sport recieved permission to play in a school-sponsored league with their son or daughter who had dedicated entire summers to special basketball camps and tournaments.

You see, in their eyes, the sport had little to do with physical activity or having a fun experience with a team of other kids. It didn’t appear that it was even about teaching the value of hard work, discipline, or resilience, either. If I had to guess, I would say many parents cared the most about a winning record, probably to feel some sense of vicarious accomplishment. That, or they thought it would prepare their kid to shine on the varsity team a few years down the road. Either way, it seemed like these few parents believed the kids who hadn’t played much before would taint their own kids’ athleticism. Like they were untouchables.

Our school and coaches tried to make it an inclusive environment. But some parents complained in hushed, and less-than-hushed, voices about the absurdity of allowing kids who “had never touched a ball before” to go out for a school-sponsored sport.

High School Musical dribbling, not how most youth sports practices go
Singing and dribbling, more or less how my practices went

What some upper class parents don’t understand is that very few families can afford to send their kids to elite basketball camps and enroll them in special summer leagues with the best and brightest coaches and players. And some kids want to play sports so they can make friends and have a team to call their own. Rejecting those kids, and making them feel unwelcome to play at such a young age is actually pretty heartless in my mind.

Our school ball league had enough girls go out for it that we were divided into A and B teams. That’s the standard road to go, and I see the value in that too. It allows the competitive kids to play together, and the less competitive kids to do the same. I was content being on the B team. As a highly anxious individual, especially on the basketball court, it actually felt like a blessing.

Jerry from Parks and Recreation saying "oh boy I am blessed"

But even here, there was a weird status, elitist hierarchy. Parents whose kids I had played on the same team with for years began talking to me differently. It’s hard to explain, but I experienced a sudden uptick in condescending tones, and patronizing looks. I felt a shift their perceptions of me, mostly by parents, but even other players. In their defense, I highly doubt they actively sought to make my team feel less-than. But it did make me feel like an outsider, and it did make me want to quit sports altogether at times.

I’m not a competitive person by nature, and playing on the B team allowed me to play with one of my friends who had never gone out for basketball before. I felt less pressure during games, and I enjoyed the teachers who coached us. So, I can say earnestly that I did not feel bothered by not being considered the cream of the youth basketball crop. Instead, I felt bothered because it appeared to me that the second I joined the B team, I received a B class citizen label as well in the 7th grade basketball community.

Man saying "class, class, class"

I don’t bring this up to garner sympathy, as this upper class suburban problem doesn’t begin to compare to the childhood traumas most American children carry with them. But now that I am over a decade removed from my youth sports career, I see why many kids quit organized sports by the age of 11. The so-called “friendly” competition of kids’ sports flies out the window as the years go by, and I don’t think the responsibility falls on the young athletes.

“Friendly” Competition

Some parents and kids feel frustrated with the suggestion of getting away from gridiron, cutthroat youth sports. They believe that other parents and coaches want us to all gather in a circle, hold hands, and give out participation trophies. I don’t want that either. For starters, I hate junk, and participation trophies head straight for the garbage. For that matter, actual trophies do not make it on any shelf or display in my household either.

Two boys in youth sports hugging instead of playing
Not exactly what this snowflake (me) had in mind when making the following arguments.

Anyway, I understand the value of competition, and I believe in sports’ potential to make our kids better, more well-rounded individuals. But, I also see the dark side competition in youth sports can bring when it becomes outright toxic.

While growing up, I witnessed parents, whose kids played for the same team, getting into shouting matches with one another and the coaches regarding playing time and other super important, pressing, worldly matters🙄. What does this teach our kids? When you don’t get what you want, bicker loudly and publicly? I was relieved that my parents never fought about my playing time, because I enjoyed being a benchwarmer. I liked being on the team, but I was deathly afraid of making mistakes on the court, even in 4th grade.

I love Lucy, Lucy shrugging
Turned out I had severe anxiety lol

Some parent feuds got so out of hand that their kids could only spend time together at school. The kids of one side of the argument no longer felt that they could ask their parents to go to their friend’s house whose parents they did not agree with about playing time. Some parents may even fill their malleable kids’ head with conspiracy theories about the other families, driving their kids away from their friends altogether. The kid begins to view the other kid as a threat, an enemy in some way.

This might sound over the top, but I saw this play out. Many times. And as a kid, I didn’t fully grasp what was happening, but I do now. Parents like to say that they enroll their kids in youth sports to prepare them for the real world and make them better people. But then they turn around and act so childish and inhumane, tarnishing the sport for so many kids. One dad of a kid a few grades ahead of me actually threw a basketball at a coach’s head from behind because he harbored such intense feelings about who knows what.

Boy getting hit in head with ball

Parents aren’t the only ones to blame for the toxic youth sports environment many kids participate in, either. I will never forget the state tournament I played in one year in middle school. One game stands out in particular. It was a close game, and although the stakes may have felt high (thanks anxiety), how high could the stakes of a middle school girls’ basketball game actually be?

One coach acted like this game determined the fate of the world. I don’t remember the exact circumstances or call that set the guy off, but after the ref blew the whistle and made a call against one of his players, he lost it. He started yelling profane language and getting up close and personal with the ref. His face turned a shade of red not unlike a ripe tomato’s, and his neck veins bulged like they might burst.

Anger from Inside Out exploding

The coach was eventually kicked out, and there was a super awkward tension that was absolutely palpable in the gym. The girl I was guarding at the time whispered that she was sorry about her coach and that it was super embarrassing for them. I told her I understood because I had been there before too, and we exchanged a knowing nod. It was honestly a genuine moment of mutual understanding that the adults in youth sports often act out more than the kids.

So if parents truly enroll their kids to teach them life lessons and help them become better people, why do so many of them display abhorrent behaviors on a regular basis during youth sports? That’s the key question.

The Tale of Perceived Achievements and The Adult Ego

I don’t know the definitive answer to the question about why some adults act so immaturely when it comes to youth sports. I have a couple of theories, and the one I reflect on the most is the parents’ sense of self-importance and conceit.

Man pumping air into inflatable Ego sign

Kids, for better or for worse, are an extension of a parent’s ego. Parents, understandably, feel secondhand pride when their kids accomplish something great. There is absolutely nothing wrong with feeling proud of your kid, but I there is something wrong with only being proud (or only telling them you’re proud) of them when they win a game or claim an accolade. In the age of social media, these accomplishments are often posted by parents with glowing captions about how amazing their kids are for winning this or that.

In a recent episode of Armchair Expert, Dax tells Leah Plunkett, an instructor at Harvard Law School, that he sees many parents posting cute photos of their kids as a way to indirectly fish for compliments.

He talks about how it’s not socially acceptable to post a picture of yourself exclaiming how cute you are (people still do it anyway), but it’s perfectly acceptable to post a picture of your kid with a similar caption instead. Yet, you’re the one that garners the notifications and the dopamine hits from likes and comments on the photo. Dax encourages parents to stop and think purposefully about why they are truly about to post a photo of their kids.

I think parents should also stop and take a long hard look at why they insist on pushing their kids to the point of mental anguish when it comes to youth sports too. Many parents and coaches claim they push their kids so hard in youth sports to toughen them up, teach them resilience, and make them have more grit. But, if we peel back a few more layers of the onion, I think many parents do it because they want their kid to be noteworthy in some way.

Old woman character saying "well isn't that special?"

Our culture is much more focused on making our kids successful and acknowledged than it is on teaching our kids to be good people. Seeing a stereotypical Karen at her kid’s soccer game is perhaps the best case study we could ever imagine for this particular idea.

The renowned developmental psychologist Adam Grant agrees with me here. He argues in Teaching Kids Kindness Prepares Them For Success that it’s more important to teach our kids to be kind and caring than it is to teach them how to collect accolades and achievements. He states that since 1979, rates of empathy have dropped among college students, and our young adults are less likely to feel concern for others. Perhaps this because we, as kids, are taught to do whatever it takes to win, even if it’s at the expense of others in sports, and ultimately, the game of life.

Anna Kendrick making throat slitting motion with finger

Parents have begun to view kindness and compassion as a weakness, and they believe that those who are relentlessly competitive with a warrior-like demeanor will be successful in some dog-eat-dog corporate America setting down the line.

Some parents also have a grandiose idea that their child is going to be a star athlete. They picture their kid getting a full ride to a D1 college, where they make a name for themselves. Maybe they’re eventually drafted, and they end up on the cover of a Sports Illustrated magazine some day.

Many parents wouldn’t admit to this fantasy, but at the very least, so many cling to the hope of a college scholarship, or some basic achievement they can rest their own ego on. Sometimes, upper class parents invest so much time and money into their kids’ sport to help them get a scholarship that it would probably be a better financial decision to just pay the tuition instead.

Woman and mascot throwing money

So yes, many parents want their kids to be a star, even if the kids themselves doesn’t want to play the sport so competitively. This story plays out in real life so often that the most intense part about many Disney Channel original movies is when a parent pushes their kid toward a sport, and the kid rebels in some way. “But this is your dream, son,” the parent says with a mix of anger and sadness. “No dad, it’s your dream,” the child replies with contempt.

This exact scenario is included in movies because it’s relatable to so many kids. Children are an extension of a parents’ ego, and parents often unknowingly use their kids to feel some sense of glory. At least, that’s why I think youth sports has gotten so far from what they should be. Take it as you wish.

In Conclusion

I’m not a parent, and I’m not a youth sports coach either. I know neither parenting nor coaching kids is an easy thing, so it’s easy for me to be critical. I don’t say these things because I’m some kind of all-knowing being that insists they could do a better job. Perhaps my own hypothetical coaching/parenting style wouldn’t work much better.

Coach from New Girl yelling "I'm trying to help you" as woman cries on exercise bike

Instead, I make these points with compassion for the kids whose sports experiences suffered because the adults around them were less mature than the kids themselves. I express these thoughts because I look back and wish things could have gone differently in my own youth sports career, as I may have been less afraid of making mistakes. I take these positions because I know that we need to, and can, do better for our kids when it comes to their youth sports experiences.

The above points about the negative aspects youth sports can have is just the tip of the iceberg, which is why I had to divide this post into two. Next week, we will get more into the specifics of how youth sports is related to diet culture, and how parents and coaches can use sports to protect their children from diet culture’s grasp.

Check out part 2!

As Always, A Book Recommendation

This week, my recommendation is the book Grit by Angela Duckworth. I read this book just over a year ago, and its message has stuck with me ever since. Duckworth has studied top-performing kids in national spelling bees, as well as recruits at military academies. She also investigates what makes top salesmen in corporate America succeed. Turns out, the answer is grit, or the sustained effort over a long time.

People are beginning to realize this, I think. Although we still like to marvel at “natural” talent, many of us recognize that talent can only take a person so far, and sustained effort is needed. Youth sports can teach kids to be gritty. But being gritty might not mean what most people think it does.

Grit does not mean punishing kids with exercise, making them run until they throw up. Nor does it mean breaking our kids down physically or mentally. Grit definitely does not mean telling our kids that they need to fit into an ideal body standard in order to compete. Grit means putting in the effort day in and day out, and sports can help with that. But, youth sports should not be the elitist, noninclusive, abrasive environments they currently are for the vast majority of kids.

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This book is incredible for so many reasons, but perhaps my favorite part is the tips Duckworth has included for parents who want to raise gritty kids. I don’t have kids, and I don’t plan on having them for quite some time. But this section still fascinated me, because it goes against what a lot of parents believe will make their kids tough, resilient, and hardworking.

Genuine grit can be achieved without the heavy-handed nature many parents and coaches apply to youth sports. This book is well worth a read or a listen. You can get this audiobook for free using the button below! Check it out ASAP!

As a proud Indie Bound affiliate, I get a small commission on books and products sold using the links on my website. It doesn’t cost you anything extra! I only recommend books that I truly love and believe in, and your purchases on Indie Bound through my website support both my work and small bookstores. Thanks!

Sources:

  1. Comparing the Academic Performance of High School Athletes and Non-Athletes
  2. Youth Sports Facts: Benefits of Physical Activity

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