Some Thoughts on Youth Sports

I have a confession to make.

I’ve never read a book that changed my life. I know a lot of thought leaders and influencers who make top 10 lists of the books that supposedly changed their life but it’s never happened for me.1

I’ve had some good teachers over the years but never any professors in high school or college that had a lasting impact on my life.

Becoming a life-long learner has been a huge help over the years yet I can’t point to any classroom interactions that have altered my life for the better.

But I’ve had multiple coaches in my life that taught me lessons I still apply to this day. I learned more on the football field or basketball court than I did in any classroom I’ve ever set foot in.2

I know it’s cliche but playing sports when I was young has had a profound impact on my life in ways I couldn’t possibly imagine at the time.

Through sports I learned about the importance of discipline, hard work, routine, exercise, teamwork, leadership, performing under pressure, sportsmanship, time management, success and failure.

When I got to high school I probably weighed a buck thirty-five soaking wet. I’m not a tall guy so I needed to bulk up if I was going to survive. Things weren’t quite as organized in the late-90s as they are today so a teammate whose mother was a personal trainer had to show me how to lift weights correctly.

I probably put on 15 lbs. of muscle in the summer between my sophomore and junior years by working out 5-6 days a week. My routine has changed over the years but everything I learned about working out as a teenager has helped me stay healthy into my 40s.

There were also all of the ancillary benefits involved: the comradery, joking around in the locker room, the bus rides to and from the games, practices, team meals, a burger with my teammates and parents Sleder’s after a big win.

Sure, it was fun to win games but there is so much more to sports than the competition.

Studies have shown that teen anxiety has been on the rise over the past decade or so. There are many reasons for this — social media, pressure from parents, a decline in social interactions and the fact that it’s easier than ever to pay attention to bad news.

Sports could help alleviate many of these problems.

Playing sports forces you to interact more with your peers, exercise, and go outside. It keeps you out of trouble from all of the practice and game time that could be spent elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the trend of young people playing sports is also going in the wrong direction.

Jason Gay at the Wall Street Journal wrote a wonderful piece about youth sports this week that outlines this undesirable trend:

According to the Aspen Institute’s Project Play, which monitors data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, the percentage of children aged 6-12 who regularly played a team sport dropped from 45% in 2008 to 37% in 2021. That drop was under way well before Covid—participation fell to 38% in 2019, the year before the pandemic. 

One of the problems is there has been a big shift to travel teams as opposed to the rec league teams of my youth. Travel teams are great when it comes to organization and competition but they’re also more expensive and time-consuming.3

Fewer kids are able to play because it’s not always as easy or cost-effective as it once was.

We want our kids to play sports not because we are disillusioned enough to think they will end up college stars someday. I’m not trying to re-live my glory days like Uncle Rico (not to brag, but I had my moment in the sun).

We want our kids to play sports because it can help them become more well-rounded individuals.

I like the idea of diversification when it comes to sports when you’re young.

My favorite example of this is the profile of tennis legend Roger Federer in David Epstein’s book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World:

His mom was a coach, but she never coached him. He would kick a ball around with her when he learned to walk. As a boy, he played squash with his father on Sundays. He dabbled in skiing, wrestling, swimming, and skateboarding. He played basketball, handball, tennis, table tennis, badminton over his neighbor’s fence, and soccer at school. He would later give credit to the wide range of sports he played for helping him develop his athleticism and hand-eye coordination.

He found that the sport really didn’t matter much, so long as it included a ball. “I was always very much more interested if a ball was involved,” he would remember. He was a kid who loved to play. His parents had no particular athletic aspirations for him. “We had no plan A, no plan B,” his mother would later say. She and the boy’s father encouraged him to sample a wide array of sports. In fact, it was essential. The boy “became unbearable,” his mother said, if he had to stay still for too long.

Though his mother taught tennis, she decided against working with him. “He would have just upset me anyway,” she said. “He tried out every strange stroke and certainly never returned a ball normally. That is simply no fun for a mother.” Rather than pushy, a Sports Illustrated writer would observe that his parents were, if anything, “pully.” Nearing his teens, the boy began to gravitate more toward tennis, and “if they nudged him at all, it was to stop taking tennis so seriously.” When he played matches, his mother often wandered away to chat with friends. His father had only one rule: “Just don’t cheat.” He didn’t, and he started getting really good.

Epstein’s main hypothesis is you’re better off with an interdisciplinary approach that focuses more on a diverse set of skills rather than hyperspecialization. When you start with a broader base of experiences it gives you more options later on when it comes time to specialize.

I just wish our communities could figure out a way to get more kids involved in as many extracurriculars as possible.

It’s a worthwhile investment.

Michael and I talked about youth sports and much more on this week’s Animal Spirits:

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Further Reading:

Now here’s what I’ve been reading lately:

1Becoming a reader has certainly helped my career from a learning perspective but I’ve never put down a book and magically had my life change because of it.

2Don’t get me wrong, classroom education is important. I just never had a life-altering experience in that setting is all.

3My oldest daughter joined a travel soccer team in the past year. It’s been a great experience and she loves it but I can see how that kind of system can make it harder for more kids to take part. It’s not cheap and it takes up a lot of time.

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