Just the other evening as I was kissing my oldest son goodnight he asked if I would sit with him for a minute. “I’m feeling really stressed out mom and I want to talk to you about it” he said.
Of course immediately my brain started racing with worst possible scenarios. I was certain something terrible had happened to him…..bullying, drugs, alcohol, girl problems…..what the heck was he going to say?? Despite my internal freak out, I managed to calmly settle down beside him. “What’s on your mind honey?” I asked a little too casually.
He took a deep breath and confided that he was mostly stressed about sports…. Sports?! Seriously?! I thought. But he went on to confide that his friends had been encouraging him to choose between 2 sports that he loves – soccer which he plays at a competitive level and hockey which he plays in house league. “They say I should choose because I’ve got to think about my future and scholarships and start really focusing on one over the other. And that I should be pushing myself to go to the next level. But I love playing both mom and I don’t really want to give up on one. And I’m not even sure I what I want to do in the future. Plus I still want to have some free time. What should I do?”
And he’s just 13-years-old. All of that pressure and expectation and stress over something that is supposed to be fun!
I’ve thought about writing a post on the pressure of competitive sports on children (and parents) about a million times but I have never figured out how to do it without pissing off the majority of the people I know. Because it seems that everyone in our social circle and beyond is passionate about (and fairly defensive) of competitive endeavours. And just to be clear – I’d include myself in that mix too since my son plays competitive soccer and my daughter does competitive dance.
Thankfully I don’t have to write that article because another author has done it brilliantly. A girlfriend recently forwarded along the compelling piece “The Race To Nowhere in Youth Sports” written by John Sullivan on the Steve Nash Youth Basketball Blog. It is thoughtfully written and well worth the read.
One thing I would add to John’s article however is that I think we as parents need to be very aware of how much our children long to make us happy and proud. Our kids are acutely aware of how invested we are in their success on the ice or on the field or on the court or on the stage. They observe how keenly we follow their successes and failures and they hear our conversations about the “best” teams and the “best” coaches and the “best” choreography. So instead of pursuing athletics for the sheer joy of it – they start to mold themselves into the athletes they think we want them to become.
Case in point- I overheard a friend of my son’s tell him this past summer “yah well our top-tier soccer team didn’t do too well this season but the important thing is that I’m being seen by the right people.” Seriously?! What 13-year-old generates that little gem? I’m 100% sure that came directly from his well-intentioned parents. But this quest for approval just adds to the overwhelming pressure our children are feeling and robs them of the chance to become their own person with their own ideas and interests and passions.
Not to mention the incredible sacrifices that have to be made by children, parents and other family members for comp sports. Family dinners, family vacations, extracurricular activities and free time hanging out with friends are all prioritized well below practices, rehearsals and extra shooting clinics. Heck, I even had to spend last Family Day weekend in an over-priced hotel with my daughter for some “mandatory” dance workshop when we should have been enjoying the time relaxing with our whole clan. And other teams require participation over Christmas holidays and spring break. It’s madness!
Listen, I certainly don’t have all the answers and I haven’t figured out the best solution. We all want what is best for our children and I know that kids are unique and experience things differently. And I am sure many of you will disagree with John’s article. But at the very least, I think we need to start an open conversation about the current climate of youth competitive sport. If we are honest with ourselves, we know it is stressing us out. And at the end of the day – it’s our children who are paying the price with their childhood.