Recently, I came across an old photo of my son Ben, then eighteen months old, taken in our front yard. On what appears to be the coldest day of the year in Baltimore, he’s bundled in a snowsuit and knit cap, his red face barely visible behind layers of fleece and goose down. All around him is a blanket of fresh snow.
It’s a classic wintry scene that would make for an excellent holiday greeting card, except for one unsettling feature: Ben is posed beside a batting tee. Grasped in his red mittens is a plastic bat. On an ideal day for ice fishing, my toddler was in the yard taking batting practice.
Whose idea was it to hone the swing of a toddler in the dead of winter? Mine. What was I thinking? I wish I had an answer. Looking back, nineteen years farther along, I can’t imagine what was going through my mind. That this was a good idea? That this was appropriate? That midwinter practice would somehow give my son an edge down the road? Blissfully, I have no memory of what delusion I was entertaining that frigid day.
I begin with that rather humbling anecdote as a sort of confession. Not only am I writing about the problems plaguing youth sports in America, for a long time I have done my part to perpetuate them.
Here are my credentials: I am the father of two sons, each of whom played organized sports. For fifteen years I attended their practices, games, postseason tournaments, and team parties with the punctuality of a school principal.
I cared deeply about their successes and setbacks in athletics. Too deeply. I am not one of those adults who becomes notorious for spectacularly inappropriate acts at youth sports games—like the overheated father who ensured his son’s defeat in a high school wrestling match by leaping onto the mat and attempting to pin his boy’s startled opponent—but watching one of my sons’ games can be a trial for me. (Not watching is the only thing that’s worse.) Years ago, I decided that it was best if I stood off on my own, separate from other parents. Once the game begins, I’m not good company.
Early in my children’s sports lives, I transitioned from anonymous dad in the bleachers to volunteer dad. At various times, I served as coach of the Barons, Mustangs, Jets, and Elite Giants. I was a league board member, seemingly in charge of dissenting each year on the need to give a special award for the best player in the league. Then for two years, I was the commissioner of a local youth league with a staggering 850 players. It was more a full-time job than my full-time job. I have been a contributor to the youth sports economy, having spent lavishly on various summer camps, clinics, showcase events, and private tutors.
Finally, I have written numerous articles about youth sports as a reporter and, for the past eleven years, a contributing editor at BusinessWeek. Over the years, I’ve reported on the big business of Little League Baseball, the cottage industry of one-on-one sports lessons, and other such topics.
Then in 2004, I stumbled on a story in equal parts fascinating and disturbing. My good friend Charles Silberstein, the retired team physician for the Baltimore Orioles, had recently returned from a medical conference. He had attended a presentation given by a colleague, Dr. James Andrews, a renowned orthopedic surgeon whose sports medicine clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, is a haven for professional athletes. At the conference, Andrews had shared unpublished data about a growing number of high school ballplayers who had been showing up in his office with a devastating elbow injury—a rupture of the ulnar collateral ligament. The players, many just fifteen and sixteen years old, had come to see him in hopes of having Tommy John surgery, a ghoulish operation in which a tendon from the patient’s wrist or leg is used to take the place of a useless elbow ligament.
I wrote an article with the headline “Tommy John Comes to High School,” citing Dr. Andrews’s statistics and raising questions about the adults who failed to keep the injured pitchers safe. About the parents, I wondered, had dreams of college scholarships and even big pro contracts totally overtaken their judgment? Of the coaches I asked, what did it say about their priorities that a bunch of fifteen-year-olds needed new elbows?
Not even two years later, I was seeing the issue through a far different lens. By then, with my son in the doctor’s waiting room, I had become the overzealous parent and the accuser had become the accused. I was eager to share that turn of events as well. First, I needed permission from my son Ben. In a leap of faith and without conditions, he gave me the go-ahead. Thank you, Ben.
This book, then, seeks to tell the story of adults and their role in shaping youth sports in America today. It’s a story of moms and daughters as much as dads and sons, of field hockey and girls lacrosse as much as baseball or football.
Across the country, young players are all too frequent victims of a sports culture that seemingly is turning its back on them. Injuries are just one troubling manifestation. With each passing season youth sports seems to stray further and further from its core mission of providing healthy, safe, and character-building recreation for children. Rather, sports for kids has evolved (and devolved) into a playground for those who invited themselves to the games and, like irritating dinner guests, refuse to leave the party—parents, coaches, and other interested adults.
By anyone’s reckoning, adults rule youth sports. At the field, gym, rink, or pool, we are the fans, groundskeepers, timekeepers, official scorers, food-stand attendants, travelteam coordinators, raffle chairs, league presidents, and, of course, coaches. At home, our titles are appointment secretaries, chauffeurs, washerwomen (and washermen), shortorder cooks, personal shoppers, and human ATMs.
It’s not the presence of adults that is distorting youth sports. Rather, the issue is our well-documented impulse to turn sports for children into a de facto professional league. For adults, it seems the fewer distinctions between playing fields for pros and kids, the better. Already we’ve turned youth sports into highly rated prime-time TV programming worth millions of dollars to networks and their sponsors. Of course, there’s the Little League World Series, an annual rite of late summer. Every one of the games appears on ESPN, the national cable channel, and is seen by hundreds of thousands of people. Or how about youth sports as the launching point for reality TV and prime-time drama. NBC scored with critics with Friday Night Lights, an adaptation of Buzz Bissinger’s tale of high school football in Odessa, Texas. Even MTV got into the act with Two-a-Days, a multipart reality show centering on the Hoover, Alabama, scholastic football team and its hard-charging, self-important coach.
Equipping and training youth players also has gone pro. It’s just a matter of how much adults are willing to spend. Velocity Sports Performance, based in Alpharetta, Georgia, operates more than seventy gyms around the country. As many as 130,000 kids visit a Velocity gym each year, paying as much as $45 per session to hone their strength, speed, and agility.
Sports psychologists are a must for parents seeking to help their young players eliminate negative thoughts on the starting blocks or pommel horse. A one-hour phone consult with a therapist is just $225. Or consider signing up a child for a private lesson with a former pro athlete. And wait, there’s more. When money truly is no object, there are the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Florida, a posh boarding school where young players attend classes in the morning and spend afternoons training in their sports. About seven hundred students, ages ten to eighteen, attend. For some, tuition and sports training exceeds $100,000 a year.
The bigger is better model of youth sports delights adults. We see our kids improve their skills and join highly competitive travel teams, a feat that impresses friends in the neighborhood and validates our superior parenting. The thousands of adults whose living depends on the billiondollar youth sports economy—selling gear, services, hotel rooms, and such—also are happy. As the wheels of commerce spin, these people also win.
Only kids are losers here. Their voices are rarely heard, and then only to justify the questionable judgments of adults. It’s not surprising that children lose their enthusiasm for organized sports, drifting away from such activities or dropping them completely. Training is too intense. Games are too pressurized. Demanding coaches and parents who expect their children to perform as stars and win college scholarships have taken the fun out of the games.
Dr. Lyle Micheli, founder of the first pediatric sports medicine clinic in the United States, at Children’s Hospital Boston, says he frequently sees young patients suffering burnout. He just doesn’t realize it right away because the patient’s initial complaint is of some physical injury—a sore knee or tender shoulder.
When the injury fails to improve as expected after several weeks, it can signal that the patient isn’t motivated to return to his or her sport. “This can often be their escape ticket from the whole process,” says Micheli.
That the young patients are unable or unwilling to tell their parents that they want to stop playing is revealing. Some have stayed in their sport long after they wanted to quit because they anguished over announcing their decision at home. “Kids are smart enough to know that their parents really like the idea that they’re playing soccer, and you just don’t quit,” Micheli says. “If you walked up to your parents at the dinner table and said, ‘I am sick of soccer, I don’t want to play anymore,’ who knows? They might break down and cry.”