When Team Sports Hurt Kids

Kids get chosen for the team before they have a chance to choose the team.

Sports parents. You know them well. You sit next to them at the extremely low-stakes weekend soccer game. You see them pressure their kid into a mini-career in soccer clubs and tournaments. You pity and abhor them while wondering if you might be just like them. You see their kid want to please them and, for the most part, fall short. Common as they are, the effect of these sports parents — assumed to be largely negative, but sometimes not — is not broadly understood. Dr. John Huber is working to change that with Mainstream Mental Health, his Austin-based nonprofit built to bring conversations about mental health into the open.

And make no mistake, the conversation about sports in America, an obsession, past time, means of building relationships, and formative social experience, is also a conversation about mental health. Why? Because sports can both help and hurt kids. They can leave them with both life skills and lifelong resentments. Huber, a father of two, believes the results emerge from the approaches different parents take. That’s why he’s not totally up on team sports but also not ready to cast aspersions at the parents cheering madly from the sidelines.

Fatherly caught up with Dr. Huber to talk to him about the mental and physical pressures of team sports on young, developing kids. What should have been a Q+A, turned into mostly just a lot of A. No complaints: The guy has a lot to say.

Why would team sports not be great for kids?

The decision to force their kids to participate in team sports, for whatever reason– maybe dad was a great quarterback–can be damaging health-wise and emotionally precisely because parents are trying to relive their youth through their children.

Kids are resilient and they’re smart, but there are kids who are very empathetic, and they just want to keep mom and dad happy. They want to give that satisfaction, they want to see that smile on mom and dad’s face, and they don’t ever say, “I really don’t like football, I’d much rather be playing soccer or playing track or martial arts or archery.” The kids don’t wanna hurt mom and dad feelings. They internalize that angst and they blame the sports instead of parents and that pushes them away from all of that physical activity.

Why not just skip sports altogether, then?

We’re animals. We have to expend energy and develop strength and exercise and hand-eye coordination to make us function normally and for our brain to be able to grow and develop normally. If we want our kid to be the best person possible, we need to pay attention to what they want to do and reinforce that. But things change. I think about my daughter. She started off with martial arts, so she goes first with martial arts, and all of the sudden her body size and shape is changing. Now she doesn’t have the coordination she had 3 months ago. That’s a struggle for her.

In what ways can team sports be damaging?

You can get individuals that basically can lose their self-identity. When you force them to do that, it may reduce their willingness to access other avenues of physical exercise that they may enjoy, that they otherwise may have. They don’t learn who they are and what their abilities can be and what interests they actually have because everything has that emotionality behind it: “I’m being forced to do this and I hate this.” So they don’t ever learn to explore.

All research talks about how sex and sexuality, how people manifest that in college. Well, that’s because they get away from their parents and they’re able to sit back and look at the things they learned from their parents, what they’ve gotten from the media, and they start to explore on their own. Parents don’t typically force their kids into sexual type situations. But with sports, what happens is they move on to college and other areas of their life and they step away from their parents and they still have that emotionality associated with, ‘Gosh, I don’t even wanna play football, because man, my dad just drove it into me that I had to play, I had to play, I had to play. and I didn’t like playing.’

One of the things that parents find hard to do is to teach kids about commitment and working for something. Sports are an easy way to do that, but you’ve gotta find something that kids are willing to participate in. I recommend lifetime sports if your kids are not very athletically inclined. Things like golf, that you can show them at 5 or 6 years old. My kid, at 3 years old, would go out to the driving range with me. He knows the basics of it. He could pick up a pair of golf clubs and run out to a driving range or a golf course with me anytime he wants. And I can do that until I can’t walk anymore. Later in life, he can enjoy it with me as well, but he does it at his own pace because I’m not trying to drive him to become the next Joe Namath or you know Tony Romo or whoever.

I don’t know if this is the same, but we recently wrote up a study that showed that kids don’t care about watching sports and don’t really gain any sports loyalty until later in life and their enjoyment of sports comes from their parent’s enjoyment of sports. They want to appeal to their parents.

There’s some history to that. But I can also say that some kids do want to play, based on even my own experience. My parents have pictures of me wanting to play football before I was 3 years old. I slept with a football. I wanted the football toy. It was bizarre. No one else in the house was sitting there watching football, and I’m sitting there before I’m 4 years old, stuck to the TV, watching you know Randy White and Roger Staubach.

My parents gave me the permission to be me when it comes to sports. I was able to learn so much about leadership, and about teamwork, about commitment by playing, but it was my decision. Playing sports helped me in lots of ways, professionally, personally, and in an immediate sense of what I do today. But I wanted to play.

Are there other lessons besides self-exploration in sports?

Sports also exposed me to disappointment. I broke my shoulder and I lost my scholarship. I actually re-broke my shoulder a couple of times and had more surgery and I’ve had to rethink sports. What I do now, instead of lifting weights and being a huge musclebound kind of guy, is to go back to lifetime sports, things like golf. Yeah, my swing looks a little funny, because I have pain in my shoulder, but I can still get a nice straight drive right down the fairway. It’s more about technique than forcing things. I kind of let my body show me what I need to do. I’ve moved onto martial arts, which sounds kind of oxymoronic, because I still have pain on my shoulder, but one of the things that I like about martial arts is it’s about me competing against me. I just want to be a little bit better today than I was yesterday. And that made my punches a little faster.

What I’m hearing basically is you’re not saying that team-sports are bad, you’re just saying that parents pressuring their children into certain sports and certain activities is what can be negative to them.

Exactly. In a 17-year-old boy, when they’re not stretching their muscles or forcing pressure on their bones, they’re not building bone density. That’s gonna severely impair those kids when they’re in their 40s, 50s, 60s. When we were more athletic, we were worried about bone density issues in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. We’re pushing that forward. In a situation like that, a parent needs to step up to the plate and say, “I know you love to be on your computer, but if you don’t do 3 to 4 hours a week of physical exercise, you don’t get your computer.” That’s not a bad thing if a parent does that. But kids will grow up as adults and realize, “Wait a minute, my dad did this for a reason because I was spending so much time in front of a computer.”

If a parent says, “You have to do basketball,” and the kid hates basketball, that’s where you start running into problems.

How do you handle this issue with your own children?

What I found with my kids, especially my daughter, who is 12 now, is that it was a bit of a battle until she said, ‘Why don’t you take me fishing with you?’ And she’s my little fisher now. I’ll say, ‘Let’s go fishing,’ and she turns the computer off before I’ve got my shoes on. Last year she went deer hunting with me. It’s almost deer season, and she’s gonna try to get her first buck.

If I had stuck with the natural tendency to define what I thought they wanted, I wouldn’t have discovered that with my daughter. But I let her tell me. I’m following through with that. Now her mom wants to go shoot a deer. So my daughter has affected my wife and is improving her physical experience. It’s a big circle, and it can be symbiotic. We both can benefit from it.

How do you keep your children moving as their interests change?

My son is a second-degree black belt and he’s gotten really into the performing arts, so he doesn’t have a bunch of time for that. I’m concerned again because my son — I wish I was as skinny as he is — I played football, so I have all this mass on my body and he doesn’t. He’s got this great flexibility, but now he’s standing up singing and that’s about the extent of his physical activity. So we still have him doing physical things, whether or not it’s martial arts, he just has a requirement of doing something every week.

He got his first buck last year so he’s looking forward to the deer season at this point. He’s doing things physically to prepare himself to go deer hunting. Walking, and running, and that kind of stuff, and hiking, which is great. Would I say that I really want to make him continue in martial arts? Yeah, but jeez! One in 10,000 people in martial arts ends up with their black belt. He’s got a second degree. He’s beaten the curve, so I’m happy.

It’s really all about commitment to movement.

Sports are an investment, whether we want to believe it or not. Whether your kid is playing soccer and belongs to a team or doing martial arts and is committed to individual training, there’s money and time involved. You don’t wanna let the kid just stop three-quarters of the way through and say, ‘Hey, that’s okay.’

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.