Smile Politely

The current state of youth sports

Growing up locally as a child in the 90’s, I turned to sports as a positive outlet.  I learned more life lessons during my time on the field and the mat than I would have ever imagined, and I owe a lot of who I am today to my coaches and the sports I participated in. Now, as a parent in the C-U area, I wish the same for my children.  Unfortunately, youth sports, especially in C-U, have gone through monumental changes since my glory days, and the pressure on our youth to be “successful” has spiraled out of control. Over the next few months I would like to share stories, advice, and an unbiased view on youth athletics in the Champaign-Urbana area.

What have we done to the purity of youth sports? When did things become political?  At what point did parents get so blinded by their own expectations that the teams our children played on, and the games we cheered at, became more about adults than kids?

Many parents have dismantled recreational sports. A lot of city or park district leagues are struggling to field a team and even more of those programs struggle to find coaches that will step up and mentor our young. Meanwhile, young athletes are hopping on the “travel” wagon locally, or driving down the road for that opportunity to play on an “elite” team.  Why did everyone jump ship from a staple program in the community? It’s quite simple: The adults had a disagreement or two, then decided to pick up their ball and go play somewhere else.

Not long after that, the competitiveness in our souls lurched from of our body and declared that we are too good for recreational sports. “It’s just holding her back,” “He wants more competition and we can’t get that here,” parents say.

What these parents are really implying is that their child is too good to play with his or her friends. The reality is, any person’s kid would be happiest playing with friends, without mom and dad there analyzing every move. Athletics are challenging enough for kids.  Sports require discipline, hard work, and quality repetition.  When you add the stress of pleasing adults to the mix, it’s a very toxic situation.  What your children look toward you for is support and encouragement, not lectures on the number of errors made in a game.  

“Can we all get along? Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids”?  Those words were spoken at a very critical time in America by Rodney King. History continues to repeat itself ladies and gentlemen. We fail to learn from our mistakes, refuse to get along, and never attempt to understand that in which we don’t comprehend.

I’ll be the first to admit that you and I won’t always see eye to eye, but I will honor your opinion and treat you with respect regardless of our differences. I do this because I acknowledge how my community is a big melting pot. It’s just one great big bowl of vegetable soup that comes in different colors, shapes, sizes, cultures, and views.  Until we learn to set aside our differences and forge relationships based on similarities, we will not evolve as a nation. These societal issues are directly connected to the current state of youth sports.

Tonight before football practice, I spoke to my son about hard work.  I explained that we only gain strength when we face resistance. You must push through that point where your body says quitting is the only option.  To improve as a person, it’s imperative that you break down those mental walls.

Fast forward to the last 30 minutes of football practice. I watched my words come to life inside of that fiery young man. My son is the smallest player on his football team, but that didn’t stop him from going toe to toe with the biggest player. Never once did those legs stop pumping as he tried mightily to run through his challenger.  While unsuccessful in his attempt, he never gave up. After that drill, I witnessed his best effort through the conditioning run as he raced back and forth with the fastest kid on the team. He got passed on the last stretch, but then found another gear and overtook the lead. At the finish, both boys gave one another a nod of respect and high fived. 

Standing on that sideline, I realized how parents are missing the point of youth sports. It’s not about playing “travel” sports or keeping stats, and it is most certainly not about meeting a parent’s expectations.  It’s about growing up, learning how to face adversity, becoming a teammate, and loving what you do.

Travel sports have made us certifiably crazy.  When my family moved in 2014, we took some (misguided) advice and leapt from rec league to travel baseball.  I admit I had my reservations and I assure you that they became reality.  I also made a quick discovery that my values did not align with those of the organization we played for.  As a coach and parent, I can tell you firsthand that the words “fair” and “impartial” are rarely associated with travel administrations.   From dealing with pretentious board members who outcast other community members, to the speech about how “transparent” the board was, and then figuring out a way of explaining to my 8-year-old son how the coach at his tryout graded him among the best, but didn’t select him for the team, was an experience I won’t soon forget.  Believe me when I tell you that I still get nauseous if I think about the phone conversation I had with that coach. 

These circumstances opened my eyes to the reality that politics are alive and (un)well in our children’s lives.  Equally sad, the same individuals controlling these programs are often the parents who carry a false sense of their athlete’s accomplishments.  They rely more on their personal agenda and continuously reveal to their children that the youngster stands above their peers.  Glorifying a young athlete’s accomplishments produces snot nose, self-entitled little jerks and Lord knows we have enough of those already!

Here is one question I would love for every parent to think about: When was the last time you sat down and just had a good conversation about life with your kids? If the answer to this question wasn’t sometime in the last 24 hours, it’s time to reevaluate your approach. I feel loved by my youngsters most when we sit down for dinner and they beg me to tell them a story. I’ve probably told the same 5 tales 1,000 times.  They still laugh uncontrollably each time like it’s the first time hearing it.  I implore all parents out there to know your kids.  After all, sports should not define us as a person (or child).  We are who we are, not what we do.  That’s a tough pill to swallow for parents amongst the competitive ranks of youth athletics today.

As adults, we must learn to make amends with others, treat one another as equals, set a great example for our youth, and support them in their endeavors.  If this comes off as a parent shaming article for subjecting your children to competitive sports, that is not my intent. I simply want to raise awareness that we are crippling the body of youth athletics, one that used to prosper in the C-U area.  Protecting the purity of the game is very important to me and should be a priority for all mothers and fathers.  If you have young athletes in your home, re-building the recreational program in your community should also be at the top of the to do list.

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