I pace the sidelines of my nine year old’s basketball game — fourth quarter, three minutes left, and it’s a tie game. You can feel the pressure mounting in the stands, with some parents holding their breath and others yelling wildly. And honestly, it all feels too high stakes for this age: trophies on display on the scoreboard table, coaches screaming, parents white-knuckled. It makes me worry about the kids. I watch as one kid throws up a free throw and misses, hanging his head in defeat. Soon after, a kid on the other team missed a fast break layup, bringing him instantly to tears. God, I didn’t think it would all feel so competitive and pressure-filled so soon.
And then I gaze over to the bench at my son. While his benchmates look grounded and intense, zoned in on the game, my very tall and wiry guy sits on the end, legs crossed and hunched over. His gaze is to the ground and he is biting his nails — not out of nerves, but out of boredom, I think. Because while he loves sports, he just isn’t that intense, and his competitive juices don’t flow like those of his friends. So I often wonder, is there even a place for him in sports nowadays, when everyone seems so acutely focused and extreme before even reaching double digits?
Today, elementary-aged kids are specializing in certain sports and practicing year round. They dedicate free time to skill building and prepare for tryouts with club and elite teams. And while I firmly believe that this is mostly driven by the parents, it still requires the child’s buy-in. Even if my husband and I were all in, my son still wouldn’t have the drive to commit to any sport at this age. And he simply is not super motivated by competition.
So while his friends are living for the game, fully aware of their accomplishments and mistakes, my kid is a little aloof and unaffected. And honestly, I would prefer it this way! It is more than likely that none of these kids will go on to make a living with sports, and a lot might burn out or get cut long before that. And while there are a million things to be gained and appreciated from sports, I don’t think this life-on-the-line intensity at such a young age is one of them. So I grin as I see him star-gazed and cross legged on the bench — but I do wonder how this will play out.
Because I gained a lot from sports. There is so much to be gained from working in a group toward a common goal. The maximum number of kids — of people, really — deserve to have these experiences. And I worry that today, we are weeding so many of the kids out too soon. Everything feels pretty ‘elite’ before they have even gone through puberty, or had a chance to grow into their bodies. Games feel serious, stressful and high-stakes which likely discourages a lot of kids from joining. And it sucks that those same kids then miss out on the actually important things about sports — the building of character, camaraderie, and friendship.
So maybe all of us parents could make a pact to chill out. Maybe if we all took the whole youth sports thing down a notch ourselves, our kids would follow suit. They model everything we do, after all. And collectively if everyone stopped trying to get their kid on the pro-track before they are even in braces, maybe the whole system will become more inviting, inclusive and dare I say: fun. Because in a life filled with lots of unavoidable, seriously stressful things. There is no need to turn otherwise entertaining and fun things into more of that. And the unathletic, unskilled kids will be weeded out come high school anyway.
Childhood is meant to be carefree and fun, after all. I just hope that his childhood athletic apathy doesn’t limit his ability to engage in something he loves. Fingers crossed.
Samm Davidson is an ex-lawyer and mom of four who swears a lot. Find her on Instagram @sammbdavidson.