What’s Wrong With Youth Sports Today?

Skye Arthur-Banning, editor of the new book 'Youth Sports in America,' explains how an obsession with college scholarships has reshaped kids sports for the worse.

Coaches brawling on the 50-yard line. Parents fighting in the stands. Young athletes pushed to the point of burnout, or worse, injury before they’re even in high school. To say that youth sports have changed over the last few decades is an understatement. What started as a way for kids to have fun after school has been co-opted into a $15 billion a year industry in which parents are obsessed with college scholarships, elite-level clubs turn big profits, and a win-at-all-cost mentality threatens to undercut many of the positive lessons sports are intended to teach.

Skye Arthur-Banning is an associate professor in the Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management Department at Clemson University and an expert in community recreation and sportsmanship. He’s also the editor of a new book entitled Youth Sports in America: The Most Important Issues in Youth Sports Today. A collaboration of top experts in the field of athletics, medicine, and psychology, the book tackles the hot-button issues challenging youth sports today ⏤ from skyrocketing costs and declining participation to out-of-control parents and a concussion epidemic ⏤ and is meant as a helpful tool for parents, coaches, and sports administrators alike.

Fatherly recently caught up with Skye Arthur-Banning to discuss many of those topics from the book and more, including the corrupting nature of college scholarships, the unnerving idea of 6-year-olds seeing sports’ psychologists, and how we can all be better sports parents on and off the field.

Can you give us an overview of Youth Sports in America and how it can be helpful to parents?
It’s a reference book more than anything. We wanted to identify the most important issues that parents, coaches, administrators, people involved in youth sports should be thinking about ⏤ from specialization and burnout to parenting pressure and pay-to-play ⏤ and present them from a neutral perspective, without taking one side or another. It’s educational and hopefully will help parents understand the importance of their roles in youth sports. But also, if they just have questions about concussions or bullying or coping with failure, it’s designed with short, quick chapters of information followed by a list of readings and suggested websites if parents are interested in learning more.

You write that youth sports have moved from simple backyard fun to a multi-billion industry. How did this happen? 
It started with the playground movement during the Industrial Revolution, but a number of elements have really contributed to its rise. One is, obviously, the ESPNs and the 24-hour sports cycle. But we also don’t realize just how much the scholarship chase drives youth sport in America, whereas it doesn’t in other countries. The idea of getting a college scholarship pushes not only sports participation but also what parents think that they’re driving their kids to, even though the percentages are so heavily weighted against you.

That’s a good point, every parent these days seems convinced that their kid is going to college on a sports scholarship.
I like to tell parents that if you’re looking for your child to get a college scholarship, 90-percent of those are academic scholarships. Only 10 to 15 percent of those are athletic. Put your kid in recreational sports and then pay for a tutor, because that’s how they’re going to get a scholarship. And even when an athletic scholarship may be attainable, most of them are only partial scholarships, they’re not even full scholarships. Only 1-2 percent of high school athletes nationwide get college scholarships.

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Competitiveness, specialization, burnout… what’s the biggest issue plaguing youth sports today?
The win-at-all-cost mentality is probably the biggest problem. Many of the decisions that parents, coaches, and athletes make are driven by that idea rather than by the idea of sport as a tool for youth development ⏤ just like art or drama or learning math. It is a tool for youth development and we forget that.

At the same time, to assume that sport alone is the tool that builds character, creates leadership, teaches lessons ⏤ the ball doesn’t teach a lesson. It’s the positive influences within the sport ⏤ the coaches, parents, administrators, the rules, the referees ⏤ those are the elements that teach the positive lessons within sports. To me, that’s the element that often gets lost at the expense of “we need to win so are we willing to bend the rules a little bit? Are we willing to look the other way?”

Has it gotten to the point where youth sports are actually doing our kids more harm than good? 
I attended a sports psychology conference a couple of years ago and they were discussing extending sports psychology services to 6-year-olds. And as the non-sports psychologist in the group, I asked, “Does anyone not see a problem with 5-to-6-year olds needing a sports psychologist?” Why are children that age really requiring to be counseled through what should be an enjoyable play environment? And while it’s nice to see some of the sports at the youth level trying to encourage more play-like activity and less stress, we’re still seeing kids classified as elite at 5- or 6-year-old. What physical changes are happening to these 5-year- old bodies when they have to perform on a daily basis?

A lot of top athletes would tell you they played multiple sports for a long time before they decided to specialize. That’s one of the challenges we face, we think our kid needs to be playing hockey from the time they are six all the way through — and they can’t play basketball, or lacrosse or something else to not only broaden their social horizon but to give their body and muscles a break and use other muscles.

What about cost, a lot of families are being priced out of their kids playing organized sports. What’s fueling this rise and do you see the trend reversing?
Unfortunately, the sports that were traditionally very inexpensive, the soccers of the world, now require, at least at the elite level, thousands of dollars or a scholarship from a club program to play. To get identified as a top player, you have to spend a whole lot of money. And what we’re finding is that a large percentage of the money goes to the coaches and administrators in the elite level clubs ⏤ in some cases, club administrators are making six figures. Traveling club teams are a revenue-generating, high-dollar business. And that complicates how you reverse that trend because I don’t know if coaches are willing to take a 50-percent pay cut just to make their services more affordable

Although I think people forget that a lot of programs still have recreational components, and those are opportunities to participate. Elite sport is becoming very expensive, yes, but sport in and of itself can still be very affordable ⏤ you have to be willing for your child to play in county recreational league and enjoy it for the sake enjoyment and fitness and socialization, rather than the elite-level traveling competition. Another part of the problem, though, is that many recreational youth sports leagues won’t even offer a particular program during a high-school season. So if it’s the high school volleyball season, they won’t offer a competing 16-and 17-year old girls volleyball program. My rationale is not all the girls are playing high school and you’re actually preventing those who don’t make the team or who aren’t at that level from participating.

You also mention the price paid by other siblings, right?
Yes, the other piece is that there are very few opportunities for multiple high-level athletes in a family because if one family is traveling to a soccer or a lacrosse tournament every weekend, it means the rest of the kids are just being drug along and not able to engage in their own recreational leisure opportunities. In some respects, families do a good job, because they realize this is a good opportunity to go out and travel together. But the other children, if you will, their interests may not be being met because they’re making sacrifices for the betterment of the one child who has been very successful at a sport.

And speaking of kids not playing, the numbers would indicate a declining participation in organized youth sports. True? And if so, do you see a way we can reverse it?
I remember chatting with several outdoor recreation professionals and they love hearing that phrase that youth sports participation is on the decline because they want to capture a lot of those kids who are leaving organized sports. They want to grab those kids who are so disenfranchised with a team sport and a coach yelling and they want those kids to go rock climbing or canoeing. There has been really strong growth in adventure sports, the Crossfit, the rock climbing, that kind of stuff. It has a different appeal to the disenfranchised sports participant.

I think to say youth sports participation is declining is a little bit misleading. Kids are still participating in physical activity for the most part, although it may be reduced physical activity because of games and sitting inside watching TV, but because of the shift to adventure sports and the specialization expectation, you can’t strictly look at the numbers. You can’t say because we have fewer volleyball players this year that youth sport is declining when those volleyball players may have just shifted to softball to specialize.

Every week it seems a video of parents or coaches fighting at a kids sporting event goes viral. Why is this happening more frequently ⏤ is it because of social media or is there something different about modern sports parents?
Yes and yes. There are obviously more opportunities to capture and post those things now thanks to social media. But without getting too political, the elements of civility within our country are deteriorating, and that shows up in sports more as a natural crossover to societal woes. I referee NCAA and youth soccer and have parents all the time, when I address them for their behavior, tell me well that their kids’ games are where they come to get their frustration out. And they say it with a straight face. Because they paid their tax dollars or league dues, they believe they have every right to yell and scream and ‘support’ their team, even though it’s negative. Again, we’ve lost sight of the fact that we’re trying to teach positive lessons to our kids. When we literally have to stop the game so that kids can watch the moms wailing on each other, what’s positive in that?

Well, that brings up an interesting new phenomenon, these websites that shame bad parent behavior at youth sporting events. What are your thoughts and are there other ways to curb out-of-control parents?
I have been to a number of state cups where they’ve started to record parents in the stands. And, oddly enough, the parents get upset about being recorded. But really, if you’re embarrassed by your actions, rather than worry about being recorded, maybe you need to consider changing your behavior.

Here in South Carolina, we recently went through ‘Silent September,’ which is similar to Silent Saturdays in a lot of other communities, where you simply can’t cheer during the game. And I’ve never been a proponent of silent anything because it encourages folks to do something nice for the day but not actually change their behavior. According to my research, 85 percent of comments and behavior at youth sporting events is positive. So instead of just dealing with the 15 percent that’s negative, we’re going to stop the whole 100 percent. And you can really see the children’s reactions when they’ve just scored a basket in basketball and are waiting for the cheers, but the cheer isn’t there. We’re actually eliminating the positive elements of the environment, the reward, and feedback that the kids want to hear, simply because the administrators don’t want to deal with the small percentage of parents who are not behaving.

Other than avoiding fights, how can we be better sports parents? 
The easy answer is to really sit down with your child and ask them why they want to be involved in a sport. I don’t think a lot of parents have that conversation on a regular basis. Why are they involved in sports, and what do they enjoy about it? And then as a parent, trying to be an advocate for those pieces of the child’s experience ⏤ rather than for the glory of what may come in the future. I certainly understand that we can’t expect a 7-year-old to make those decisions, but parents still need to support them and understand that sport is a tool for youth development. Sport is not a tool for scholarships or status.

We can truly develop positive healthy young people through the lessons of sports, but those lessons need to be guided lessons ⏤ and a lot of that guidance comes from the parents and those conversations you have with your kids on the drive home after a game. I’ve never been a proponent of every kid gets a medal because there’s value in losing. But the only value that comes from losing is if, as a parent, you have those conversations with your child.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.