I was a lifelong soccer player starting with my town’s travel team, going on to co-captain my high school soccer team and play Division 3 soccer in college. I also swam, played tennis, basketball, ice hockey and lacrosse — a different sport or two every season, picking up new ones even through high school. I grew up at a time when kids could actually do this. They didn’t have to commit to one sport in 3rd grade and prioritize it over all overs. And I’m so glad I did, because being an athlete — not just a soccer player — taught me leadership, perseverance, teamwork, sportsmanship. It afforded me lifelong friendships and provided a deep foundation of confidence for adulthood. So much of who I am and what I have accomplished I owe to my years on the field, in the pool, on the court and rink.
When I became a parent, I couldn’t wait for my kids to play sports, because I knew how deeply those experiences had shaped me. But I was wholly unprepared for what I would encounter in today’s youth sports. In just a generation, things had changed so dramatically — the intensity, time commitment, high cost, required specialization — that it wasn’t clear to me if my kids would benefit the same way I had.
And I was only beginning to see then what has now become a common refrain in the media: frightening statistics about the impact of sports overspecialization. On the physical side, dangers to young athletes who overspecialize, like overuse injuries and reconstructions in kids barely starting high school. And on the mental health side, the scary rates of anxiety and depression amongst elite athletes, evidenced by the tragic trend of college athletes dying by suicide. Seemingly successful, happy student athletes who had achieved everything they were “supposed to” were buckling under untenable pressure, putting up such a brave front that oftentimes parents, coaches and teammates were shocked by the heartbreaking result of these athletes’ struggles.
My daughter recently asked me, her mother who played college soccer, if I thought she should play in college. My response? Hell no.
But this phenomenon is not a runaway train — adults can and should take responsibility, step on the brakes, and protect kids from the high emotional and physical costs of intense specialization.
Even 15 years ago, when my oldest kid turned 5, I was shocked to see that registration for his youth soccer league was full months in advance of the season. I didn’t want my kid to be left out; my husband decided to coach a team to make room. That early worry about my kid missing the youth sports train only grew more intense as the years passed. Like a lot of parents, I used to spend my weekends in all kinds of weather watching my kids play game after game. We forfeited holiday weekends together to take one kid or another to faraway tournaments, missing family’s milestones and special occasions. Our kids played soccer to the exclusion of all other sports, week in and week out. They watched teammates fall to chronic injuries before they had even hit their teens. They listened to parents berate their children (and sometimes our children) from the sidelines. They played in sleet, snow and windstorms. There were years they loved it, years they were indifferent, and years they begged to quit.
Over time, one by one, my kids started making their own choices away from intense specialization. One kid decided he didn’t want to play college soccer and therefore, the time commitment to a club team wasn’t worth it. Another found the intense pressure from other parents on the sidelines was eating away at his confidence and didn’t want to pay that emotional price. Another just wanted to play for the fun of it and simply didn’t care enough to compete week in and week out. (Full disclosure, one of my kids still plays travel soccer but on a very reasonable, manageable kind of team.) I count myself lucky that our kids didn’t burn out so spectacularly that they quit altogether — and even more grateful that their sports careers didn’t define my whole relationship with them.
Our kids chose to get off the specialization track — we didn’t have to make that choice for them. They now play different sports, at which some they excel and some they are utterly mediocre. They play for the love of the game and the thrill of competition, for the joy of teamwork and the nourishment of camaraderie. These days they are not specialists. They are journeymen. I am so grateful for that and maybe a little proud that our family got off that hamster wheel unscathed.
Having owned up to my failings in not holding the specialization at bay, not setting limits and not protecting my kids from the stress, there are two things I do not regret through this nearly two-decade journey. My kids still learned so many valuable lessons from being competitive athletes, and I count myself lucky that they could strive for victory and challenge themselves, learn about their strengths and weaknesses, build their resilience, and sticktoitiveness. Perhaps their experiences as athletes will be as central to their identities as mine were, but I am experienced enough now to know that’s not really the point. The hope is this: that the lifelong value of sports will offer us all self-knowledge, an awareness that we are all fallible, and an understanding that sports might have built us but they do not define us.