I’m a huge fan of youth sports. Sports are a great way to keep kids healthy and help them learn lessons in discipline and responsibility.
But youth sports aren’t all trophies and high fives. Youth sports can be a firewalk through the inferno.
First Circle: Jumping Beans Gymnastics and Crazy Parents
Preschooler sports are less about competition and more about having fun while tiring kids out before nap time. But a few parents act like they’re Bela Karolyi and their 2-year-old is the next Nadia Comaneci.
Instead of standing on the sidelines saying things like, “Good job, sweetie!” or, “Oops! You went boom!” these over-achieving parents yell, “Nail the landing or no more Bubble Guppies!” They sidle up next to you and say, “What kind of protein powder are you using? We’ve switched to soy, and I’ve seen a real difference in McKenzie’s bridge kickovers.”
Meanwhile, your child is happily sprawled on the mats, drawing designs in her drool.
Second Circle: Rec League and More Crazy Parents
In recreational leagues, children learn developmental skills specific to the sport. In baseball, the coaches teach kids how to throw the ball and sometimes need to point runners in the direction of first base.
Amazingly, the parents in low-level recreational leagues are even more rabid than in the preschool leagues. You’ll hear grownups yell at their kid’s teammates for picking daisies during a double play, and then yell at their own son for not catching a fly ball over his shoulder while running to the outfield.
Rec league parents are ejected from games for screaming insults at the coach, ref and the other team. Unfortunately, they don’t get ejected as often as they should.
During rec league, many children get fed up with their parents, refuse to play sports ever again and start writing comic books.
Third Circle: Practice
Every sports practice begins with a litany of questions:
Do you have your water bottle? Why are you wearing your old cleats? Where are the new cleats I just bought you? No, I don’t know where your socks are, did they ever make it to the wash? Didn’t we make a checklist of all your equipment so you’d have it ready to go?
If your child is a skater or swimmer and practices start at 5 a.m., multiply the chaos and frustration by a factor of 20. Also, start pouring Red Bull into your venti quadruple-shot latte.
Fourth Circle: Game Day
Let your kid find her equipment; you have your own crap to remember.
Where the hell is this field? Damn, we’re running late and I forgot to put gas in the car. Was it my turn to bring the orange slices for halftime? Argh, I left the lawn chairs in the garage and now I’ll have to stand. Uh oh, did I pack sunscreen and bug spray? Too late now, we’re almost at the field.
Wait, what do you mean today was the volleyball game and not soccer!
Fifth Circle: Travel Team
Travel league separates the rabid from the flat-out insane. If, at 10 years old, your son hasn’t made the decision to devote every weekday, weekend and February 29 on leap years to his sport, you should probably rethink your level of commitment to youth sports.
World Cup soccer players get a few weeks off every year when they don’t set foot near a soccer ball; travel league soccer players call that being soft.
And in travel league, it’s time to start shelling out cash.
Sixth Circle: Mom and Dad’s ATM Machine
The more talent your child shows in a sport, the more mortgages you’ll take out on your house.
Did you think figure skates were expensive at $80? Once your Michelle Kwan is landing double salchows, add another zero to the price of those boots and blades. Is your son a hockey goalie? Tell him his equipment is his birthday and Christmas presents for the next 10 years.
Oh, and rink fees run about $11 an hour, and the coach says your kid needs to be on the ice 10 hours per week, every week. And that’s just for starters.
Seventh Circle: Trainers and Private Coaches
At some point, weekly group practice won’t propel your young Venus Williams to the US Open. At $60 to $100 an hour for private coaching, how many Benjamins can you pull out of your pocket before your shorts fall down?
And your private coach will become a one-on-one guardian of your child’s body, mind and heart for hours each week. What kind of references should you ask for? Is this coach the kind of person who will pressure a kid to play injured or use bully tactics to motivate?
Are you wishing you were back in rec league?
Eight Circle: Tournaments
The stress, money and screaming are DEFCON 1 at tournaments and championship competitions. Coaches are freaking out because they need to bring home a trophy if they want to keep their jobs. Parents are freaking out because a college scout is in the stands, and Junior has a shot at a scholarship. Kids are freaking out because the grownups are freaking out.
Add to that the physical stress of driving long hours, eating hotel food and playing five or six games over a weekend, and you’ve descended into the…
Ninth Circle: Injuries
First come the cuts and bruises. Then, the sprains, stress fractures and breaks. Say “ACL” to a soccer or basketball parent, and they’ll drop down in prayer, even if they’re atheists.
After a 365-days-a-year season, kids suffer overuse injuries and burnout. And 12-year-old kids get knocked out of a sport for life after multiple concussions.
The heroes of youth sports successfully complete the epic journey by being sensible, making healthy choices, and not sucking the joy out of the game.
And that’s for the grownups, not the kids.
Now get out there and have fun!