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It’s Not How You Play the Game Anymore

Pressures of youth sports

I love sports. When I was young, I was most fortunate that my parents recognized this love even though they were not sports people.  (My mother used to ask me what time basketball rehearsal was.) I am grateful that my parents provided me with many opportunities to play youth sports, and I continued to play multiple sports through high school and college intramurals. I’ve continued to play in adult leagues to this day.

I’ve had a lot of fun playing sports, and I’ve learned a great deal from the physical, mental and emotional challenges presented on the field and court. I think sports are incredibly valuable for young people. Sports provide great classrooms to learn how to push yourself and deal with adversity. Sports can help build character.  I know that I am a more successful person because of what I have learned through my participation in sports. And I’m not alone.

Each summer, I attend a gathering of the guys I grew up playing ball with. Many of these guys played NCAA sports and a number of them have children who are doing the same today. All of them have coached youth sports and all of them have provided youth sports opportunities for their children. One evening, I asked a room full of these involved sportsman whether the culture of sports in our country is in balance. Uniformly, they responded, “No.” The value system has become skewed and that it is not as healthy a culture as it should or could be.

The prevailing opinion in the room was that youth and school sports today involve way too much pressure. Instead of being activities that encourage fun and fitness, instead of the goal being healthy lessons about teamwork, effort and pursuing your personal best, today’s parents are increasingly looking for more measurable results and payoffs: playing time and college scholarships. My friends cited three reasons for this unfortunate increase in intensity.

Much of the intensity we see in parents comes from fear that their child will not have athletic opportunities to play and learn as they grow older unless they are very accomplished. Many of the parents whose children are slated to attend large middle and high schools know that only 25-30 boys and 25-30 girls in the whole school will have the chance to play most sports offered by the school. If the school has a thousand boys or girls, the chances of being able to play for your school are not very strong. You have to be good enough to make the team or you won’t have the chance to play. If you don’t have the chance to play, you won’t learn the great lessons and have the great fun that sports offer. As a result, parents push.

And that competitive fire is fueled by the second cause cited by my friends: the playing field is one place where we parents can directly see and assess how our child stacks up against all the other children. We don’t correct the homework of other children nor do we read those children’s papers or grade their math tests, but we can readily see whose better at soccer or gymnastics. We can see who the competition may be for the third complicating factor: those college scholarships that [we believe] can save us a bundle.

Unfortunately, the dreams families have about college athletic scholarships do not square with the facts.

According to the Houston Chronicle, the numbers in Texas (which is an example that’s likely pretty close to Florida) show that the overall average of high school athletes who get any kind of college scholarship is well less than 2 percent. That is 2 percent of the athletes not 2 percent of the student population. The rate is less than 1 percent in basketball (boys and girls), boys soccer (girls soccer is exactly 1 percent), baseball, softball, cross country/track and field, boys swimming/diving, volleyball, boys tennis and wrestling. Football, girls tennis, girls swimming and diving and girls golf all average 1 to 2 percent of high school participants earning scholarships.

National Letter of Intent, an arm of the NCAA that is a resource for high school athletes who aspire to play in college, asks and answers the question this way:

Do many high school athletes earn athletics scholarships?

Very few in fact. According to recent statistics, about 2 percent of high school athletes are awarded athletics scholarships to compete in college. This small number means high school student-athletes and their parents need to have realistic expectations about receiving an athletic scholarship to play sports in college. Academic, not athletic, achievement is the most reliable path to success in life.

Further, the dollar value of each college athletic scholarship is usually well under half the cost of tuition, room and board.  Most NCAA sports (football is the big exception) have around 6-10 full scholarships to dole out to the entire team. So very few student-athletes are offered full rides. More commonly, scholarships are split so students earn 1/2, 1/4 or 1/5 of tuition.  Ultimately, the investment in all of the club sports and the time and travel involved in preparing the student to be a college scholarship athlete bring questionable returns.  Some of the non-monetary costs can also be challenging to bear, especially the social/emotional toll the intensity can exact.  I hope all athletes and their families do their research as they progress through high school.

All the pressures of today’s sports culture have a troubling consequence: the stakes increase the likelihood of bad or morally questionable decision-making.  One only needs to be aware of the news these past few months to realize that something has gone awry.  The rewards that come with winning programs are seductive.  They can cause athletes, parents, coaches and administrators to cut corners or turn the other way when they should not.

The pursuit of excellence, the teaching of commitment and the positive lessons about competition that come from sports are laudable goals, and I very much support their pursuit through appropriate  means.

How should we respond to the craziness in the culture of sports?

  • Seek cultures that value participation.  Many independent schools have no-cut policies that allow a high percentage of the student body to have valuable athletic experiences.
  • Urge your youth leagues to adopt the principles and practices of the Positive Coaching Alliance (, an organization that has developed a value system and excellent resources for coaches, parents and kids.
  • Finally, remember that happy kids make good learners. Participation in sports can be fun, especially if the adults who are responsible for crafting the experiences have perspective, wisdom and keep the joy in the journey.

Play ball!

Mark Heller is head of school at Academy at the Lakes in Land O’ Lakes. Visit Academy at the Lakes

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