As football and soccer seasons get underway across the country, parents will spend millions of dollars equipping their kids and millions of man-hours preparing boxed lunches and ferrying teams of tiny athletes to far-flung tournaments. If that sounds like a costly affair, it is: Youth sports has become a $15 billion industry in America, with nearly 20 percent of U.S. families spending at least $1,000 a month on their kids’ athletic pursuits — generally at the expense of family vacations and retirement savings.
Investors from Jerry Jones to Stephen Curry have rushed to cash in, but the jury is still out on whether any of this will actually benefit kids. While camaraderie, professional training, and better competition are worthwhile, the dreams of athletic scholarships and pro careers driving so many of these players and their parents are as impossible to realize as they’ve ever been. And, yes, parents should be commended for going all-in to support their kids’ goals, even if all that money spent chasing a sports scholarship could have ended up paying for college when it’s all said and done. But it does make one think about long-term priorities.
One thing we do know for sure is that the single-minded pursuit of athletics has given rise to the single-sport youth athlete — and that should make every parent want to call a timeout. It used to be that kids played a different sport for a different community-based team each season. If you sucked at soccer and basketball, you could at least look forward to springtime redemption on the baseball diamond. But now, there are year-round leagues that enable kids to, say, play baseball all year long. As it turns out, trying (and failing) to get on the field in a variety of sports has value.
It teaches kids grit, work ethic, focus, determination, and communication. Specialization teaches kids to hate their favorite sport. Young kids who only play one sport are at greater risk for injury, burnout, and depression later on. One recent study of more than 1,500 high school athletes found that those who specialized in a single sport from an early age were 50-85 percent more likely to experience a lower extremity injury. Those injured kids often become inactive, arthritic adults as injury, burnout, and exhaustion lead to unhealthy lifestyle choices.
Everyone wants to keep their kids active, especially as we get back into the swing of chaining them to desks for eight hours a day. But as with any investment, when it comes to kids and sports, maximizing your return requires a diverse portfolio.