Youth sports in the United States is a multi-billion-dollar industry. As a parent and a coach I think that it’s absolutely necessary to remain aware of the business related aspect of youth sports as we make decisions for our children. Make no mistake, private sport clubs need players. No club can function without participants and without the revenue that participants create. In the youth sport industry our children are the commodity that is being traded, literally. This does not mean that youth sport clubs are inherently bad or destroying our youth. On the contrary, thanks to the boom in youth sport options, today’s children have opportunities that most parents could only dream of when we were children. The key in all of this is to make sure that YOUR child is getting what THEY need and that they are reaping the benefits that well managed club sport participation can provide.
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There are, and hopefully there always will be, community-based youth sport organizations that teach fundamental skills and allow for basic, local, competitive options. For the most part these organizations are effective gateways into any number of sports and with their low cost, localized approach and reasonable travel they allow young athletes to test the water and find out if their love of a specific sport needs to be nurtured and pursed at a more competitive level. That “more competitive level” can get complicated and expensive… quickly. It can also be a life changing positive experience. Understanding the lay of the land, the opportunities and the pratfalls, is crucial for parents who are trying to help their young athlete chase their passion for their chosen sport.
At the end of the day that last line is really the key to this entire discussion. “Helping young athletes chase THEIR passion for THEIR sport.” The most basic and effective advice I have ever heard regarding how to navigate youth sports for your child is; don’t push, let them pull you in the direction THEY want to go. When a child is motived and excited about something that excitement is both obvious and infectious. Make sure, as parents, that we allow our child to pull us in the direction that they want to go. Pushing them in the direction that WE want them to go is, at best, problematic. To be fair, and to add to the confusion, we do need to find ways to push youngsters to do great things but, it is my educated opinion, that without a fundamental desire to both enjoy and succeed, all the pushing in the world is futile.
Not every child is a highly competitive, team oriented, athlete waiting to happen. Many of my most gifted and athletic friends have no desire to play a team sport but excel at track and field, tennis, golf, distance running and any number of other athletic endeavors. There is a path to greatness in all sports no matter if it’s team sports like basketball, football and soccer or individual sports from golf to cross-country skiing, crew or bowling. They key to success in any of these endeavors is commitment and it is a passion for the sport that drives that commitment. You can’t force passion, but you CAN nurture a young athlete’s passion and make sure that they have the support and guidance they need.
This is where youth sport organizations come into play and this is exactly where things get confusing and highly emotional for both parents and players. When passions run high, and to find success at the highest levels they have to, it can be very difficult to step back and figure out what is right for our children. There are a number of factors that lie at the heart of the discussion regarding whether to pursue a pay to play, club level sport environment. These factors are vital building blocks to help parents and young athletes to begin to decide how much they are willing to invest, financially, physically, mentally and emotionally, in the sport (or any organized youth activity) of their choice. I’ve broken down these key factors into four sub groups to help focus this discussion and provide as much direction as possible. Please note, this discussion is about youth sport options, but these options are not sport specific and they can be applied to any organized youth activity.
As I mentioned before, the path to greatness in any endeavor requires a great deal of commitment. A young person cannot become a great musician or a great athlete or a great anything without spending a great deal of time practicing, honing their skills and absorbing as much information as possible as often as possible. Our capacity for learning and growth is staggering but repetition and commitment to a singular goal lies at the heart of most success stories, no matter the activity.
Most communities have inexpensive options but most of those options are run by volunteers who provide a gateway into whatever activity they are offering. It’s a big jump from the local little league to the major leagues and similarly, from a community theater to Broadway. These ‘big jumps” don’t come cheap. They require specific training, travel to practices and travel to competitions or performances. Unless you plan to put your pre-teen on a bus to Manhattan or to MLB Spring Training in the hopes that they “make it” you need to plan on making those trips right along with them. You’re also going to have to make sure that their mentors/coaches etc. are right there with them as well. Great coaching and great programming, costs money, plain and simple.
If you are going down the path of the truly committed youth sport athlete, you are going down that path with the community that forms around your chosen club or team (or dance troupe etc.). You will miss local events because you have to travel to regional and national competitions. You will have to leave town and travel when other families may be planning a relaxing weekend working around the house and firing up the BBQ. Your new community may be an outstanding and fulfilling experience for you and your child but you, like your child to his/her sport, will have to be committed to this new community. You can’t skip out on important dates, you can’t (or shouldn’t) show up late and you also won’t likely have much say in the schedule that’s created. Parent’s with multiple children may well find themselves deciding when and where they are able to support each of their children in their varying efforts. We can only be one place at a time and, at the elite level, that place is often far from home.
I honestly believe that there is a level for everyone. You can play soccer, baseball, basketball, participate in a chess club and tryout for a part in your local theater’s production in most towns. Most towns and regions have any number of opportunities. I can enroll my son in a yogi camp and then run him over to basketball practice and top it all off with tee-ball. You could never leave your own town and still be awash with options in any number of completely viable activities. That said, there is a limit to how “big” you can go if you only participate in any activity at the local level. If your youngster has that passion and really wants to find out how far she/he can go then you need to begin to pursue increasingly competitive opportunities. At each stage you should be able to see if your child can compete at that level or not. If they can compete and succeed you can continue to search for the next level. If they can’t compete you have to make the difficult decision to help push them towards that next level or perhaps help them shift their focus to an activity that more suits their skill set/needs.
“Whatever helps you sleep at night” is a cliché that gets tossed around during times when our conscience is tested. As parents, there are few restful nights if our children are not happy productive little people. There are no easy answers here. As a coach I have trained soccer players at many levels from youth to college. Whenever I find myself trying to help a bunch of 11 year-old players to “push through to the next level” with great commitment and great sacrifice of time and effort I can’t help but be brutally honest with myself to make sure that I’m helping them grow and not simply helping myself enjoy a better result the following weekend. We all need to face these moments, these tests of conscience, head on to help properly nurture, push and protect our sons and daughters as they grow and pursue their own varying interests.
To aid in this effort I offer a solid guide brought to us by two professors of Psychology from the University of Rochester Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan. Deci and Ryan have worked extensively to study the nature of intrinsic motivation and the Self Determination Theory(SDT). Their theory of three basic needs that lead to intrinsic motivation is widely used and recognized by both coaches and educators worldwide. Intrinsic motivation means that someone is motivated to pursue a goal because it is interesting and exciting. It is intrinsic motivation that will cause your youngster to PULL you in the direction that THEY desire most. Deci and Ryan, in their expanded research on SDT, believe that intrinsic motivation is nurtured best when three basic needs are met; Competence, Autonomy and Relatedness. These three building blocks offer a great guide and/or foundation for parents who seek quality experiences for their children. Are they competent? Can your child learn, and ideally master, the skills and enjoy the competitive level in the sport or activity of their choice? To find autonomy people need to feel that they have some sense of control and personal choice in the trajectory of their own individual journey. Finally, relatedness means that they are able to find comfort and inclusion in the group dynamic and empathy for their fellow participants. Admittedly, this paragraph is a concise look at a much more complicated and expansive discussion regarding the nature of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. That said, these three basic needs can be helpful to frame your child’s experience and to help parents manage their child’s level of appropriate participation. The more you know…
In conclusion, the expansion of opportunities for our young athletes has been exponential in the last 10-20 years. Most communities are awash in clubs and organizations that all offer plenty of training and development in team sports or the arts etc. Once again, the key to all of this is what is best for YOUR child. Just because the neighbors love their child’s coach doesn’t necessarily mean that your child will thrive in that environment. If our children are the commodity that private youth sport clubs now trade, then we as parents need to make sure that we covet and protect the value of our children’s participation. We need to do our due diligence and find out as much as we can about the realities of what our children’s participation will include. Once you’ve done your homework, when your child starts to pull you in their chosen direction, you can go down that road with confidence as you watch your child hopefully thrive in their chosen environment. Always make sure that your child is getting what they want and need. Also, make sure that your family environment is enriched, not diminished by your child’s participation and always make sure that, as their parent, you are seeing the appropriate developmental environment that they deserve.
About the Author:
Andrew is the Head Women's Soccer Coach at Northern Vermont University - Johnson. A Northern Vermont University - Johnson alum, Andrew Lafrenz graduated in 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in English. As a student, he was editor-in-chief of Basement Medicine, JSC’s student newspaper, and received the English Department’s award for excellence as a senior. He also played soccer as a Badger and was part of a team that advanced to two consecutive Mayflower Conference (NAIA) championship games. He later earned a Master's degree in Physical Education and Coaching at Boston University and is also a professor at Sports Management at NVU-J as well.