Have Sports Become Too Intense?

Today, it is raining. Hard. There are thundershowers forecasted throughout the day. The high today is 50.

It looks like this outside:


I question: just because we have a turf field and it won’t tear up the fields to play, does it make sense to have 30 seventh and eighth grade girls standing out in the rain in a high of 45 degrees for four hours in order to play two games?

This post needs to be taken with a grain of salt. I will freely admit that I am a burned out coach. I have coached two sports for seven years, and, frankly, I am emotionally done.  The good thing is, I know that I am “done,” I know that coaching was not and never will be my passion, and I am taking a break from coaching after this current season in order to spend time with my new baby and husband. The bad thing is that, well, the thought of going back to coaching after my baby starts to grow up is not that appealing to me.

The second reason you need to take this post with a grain of salt is that, while I love playing sports and games of all types, I’ve never had the mindset that they’re that important. Sports were something I played as a kid because I liked the game, I liked being outside or getting exercise, and I liked playing with friends.  Later, in high school, sports were something I did because I had always done them. Now, as a coach, I just can’t get all that worked up about the life and death nature of a middle school girls basketball game. Even a varsity game. I firmly believe that sports should be played because they’re fun. End of story.

So, with those two caveats in mind, read on if you dare…

I think that the adults in charge of sports manage to kill the fun of them by making them too intense too early. Whether the death of fun happens in middle school, high school, or college, all too frequently, sports can turn into too much of a job for a majority of the kids who start out playing them for “the joy of the game.”

Middle school students are getting burned out of sports. How has a middle schooler had enough time to become burned out? They’re 13 for goodness sake!

Club Soccer provides a perfect example of this problem. I loved soccer when I was a child, and I was pretty good at it. I played on the gold team–a traveling team– starting in fourth grade. As a fourth grader, my family made the monetary and time commitments for me to fly to St. Louis, Washington DC, and drive me extensively throughout the state of Georgia in order to play soccer games. As a fourth grader. Looking back, I cannot believe my parents agreed to that level of commitment for someone so young.

In another moment of intensity, I almost got kicked off my club team for choosing to go to a school function instead of one of my club soccer games. I do understand that when a person makes a commitment, it’s important that she honor that commitment, but I couldn’t understand why my extra curricular sport that I was supposed to be doing for “fun” suddenly was running so much of my life. As you can imagine, I got so burned out from soccer that by 8th grade I had quit that club, and by 10th grade I had quit soccer all together.  The intensity of the expectations from the adults running the program had squeezed all the fun out of the game for me.

My former club soccer program and other clubs like it, I imagine, have only gotten more intense since then. I spoke with a teacher who has a soccer player on her school team who told the coach that she had to miss a school game because she had club practice. Thinking that the club coach might allow a middle schooler to choose a school game over a club practice, the teacher called the other coach up to ask for permission for the player to come to the game. My friend was floored by the coach’s response: “No she cannot miss a practice. For any reason.”  What kind of insanity is that? For any reason? This is something that child and her parents are paying to do. They are the clients, and they can’t choose whether or not to miss a practice? I think that is going a little too far.

Another example of how the adults in charge are making sports too intense is by the schedules that we ask our players to agree to at such a young age. Middle school sports practices are scheduled when students have days off from school. Easter break? No dice! See you at practice at 10 am! Teacher work day with no school for kids? See you on the field at 3:30.

Some coaches schedule games on both Saturdays and Sundays. It is de riguer now that Varsity coaches ask their players to practice or play games the day before and the day after Christmas, over all of Thanksgiving and Christmas Break, and to spend their Spring Breaks practicing or going to tournaments. To come to off-season practices and workouts in the summer. These are not extra sign-up-for-it-if-you-want-to-cause-it’s-fun events. These are mandatory.

All I can ask is WHY? What is the purpose of what the adults running these programs are doing? What is the purpose of the intensity?

What’s that, you say? We want to be good? It takes practice to become a competitive player?

We know that mastery comes from 10,000 hours of practice. It’s Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule. You want to get good at something? Do it a lot. Well, I’m all for that, except when adults start to make children make those commitments to excellence at such a young age. They turn the purpose of sports from something done for fun, for exercise, for character building into something done to get “good.”

Here are my problems with this excuse: 1) most of the middle schoolers who pick up a sport are not going to play that sport in college. And yet we require college level commitments of them in order that they “get good.” 2) Adults are the ones who make the schedules for practices and games. The adults make mandatory the commitment from the kids. The children have no say in whether they want to play in the rain in 40 degree weather. If they want to play ball on spring break or not. When we remove choice from the kids who start out playing because it’s fun, we start to remove the fun from sports.

Dr. Madeline Levine, clinical psychologist, has written several books about how to parent well and how parents can avoid the pitfalls of “over parenting.” One of the things she advocates is that children-and parents- need P.D.F.: playtime, down time, and family time.

I think sports used to be able to fit into the playtime category. But now they’ve become so much of a time and monetary commitment that sports  are starting to fall more on the “work” side of life. They’ve become something from which we need a break. Moreover, the time commitment from sports creeps in to the time which was once reserved for “down time” and “family time.” When there is not one day of the week without a break from sports, that sport has become more than just play.

Now, my husband disagrees with much of what I’m writing here. He says he loved playing every sport he participated in. He wanted to play baseball all summer, all spring break, and all off season. He says he wouldn’t trade a minute of it. So, perhaps I’m wrong.

But here is what I can’t help thinking: my husband didn’t go on to play baseball in college. He didn’t go on to play professional baseball. But baseball was a passion of his. He was lucky to find it early. I don’t know that the majority of the kids who play sports today feel that way about every sport they play.  I wonder how many of them feel more like me: trapped in a commitment that they thought was going to be fun?

I am sure there are kids out there for whom their sport is their passion.  They would choose to go play basketball over Spring Break, or they would choose to go play lacrosse in rainy, 40 degree weather. Doing so would bring them joy. Those kids thrive in the current sports environment, and I would not begrudge them that choice.

I just know that sports aren’t my passion. I wouldn’t choose to coach on my vacation days.  I wouldn’t choose to go to play baseball in the rain or a pick up game on Sunday. So perhaps what I’m really arguing here is that parents, admins, and teachers have to make sure that both the players and coaches have the ability to choose to go towards their passions full-on, and if they discover that their passions lie in another area besides sports–then they have to be able to choose something else, lest the intensity enjoyed by some become a reason for burn-out in others.

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2 Responses to Have Sports Become Too Intense?

  1. cajuncart says:

    Thank you for your honesty and courage, EPDWilliams. This holds such a necessary mirror to our faces in a century/society of upside-down priorities and values. If we as adults seek BALANCE in our lives, why do we need not aim to help foster the same for our children?

    With each year, I hear more and more from my students about been overloaded with games/practices/school. They are overloaded and overwhelmed and overscheduled CHILDREN…CHILDREN!

    Again, my friend, I respect and honor your honesty and courage here. THANK YOU FOR YOU.

  2. Judy Gale says:

    Dear Peyten, I grew up loving to participate in sports. I went from high school teams (a basketball team as a nun, don’t laugh, I was desperate) and then was on “Master” teams like swimming, running, biking, so I read your thoughts with great interest. I realized that what sustained my love of sports, my kids love of sports and now my grandchildren’s love of sports is that it always felt like a “treat”–something we all look forward to but never felt overburdened by. I also think the egos of parents have overshadowed the fun. When did we decide that parents on the sidelines was a good idea? I taught in a Middle School where no parents could come to the games. The kids played their hearts out, there were never tears, and even though they kept score, the kids focused on who played well. This was in East Cobb by the way. One of my students, who is struggling, was given a chance to rework a test and then be reassessed. She was excused from the regular homework to jump right on this opportunity. She came into class the next day looking haggard and tired. She didn’t do the work she was suppose to do because she had a soccer practice she couldn’t miss. When I checked in with her mom, she said that there was no way her daughter could miss practice. Her daughter has missed some Office Hour opportunities in which she could have greatly benefitted, has missed down time which she needs, and looks tired and overwhelmed. Oh, by the way, she is being tested. You are on to something. My kids have chosen good public schools for their children while the kids are in elementary school, so they won’t get caught up in any pressure that might come from being in an elite school whose culture suggests you must ” do it all.” Scotty and I do what we can to stress balance–for some kids it is already a lost cause. What an influence you will be when you dispense wisdom in the carpool line. Judy

    Sent from my iPad

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