Jaffe: As Mom would say, youth sports’ competitiveness should be toned down

May 14, 2012, 1:45 a.m.

In honor of Mother’s Day, it seemed fitting to talk about my own mom this week. Growing up, my mom had so many roles. On the weekends, she was a soccer mom. She drove players in her minivan, made the team banner, cheered from the sidelines, brought us snacks at halftime and even used her own limited soccer expertise to help as assistant coach. She was the ideal supporter of my soccer career (as well as my equally rewarding baseball and basketball careers) despite the fact that I showed about as much athletic talent as a gum wrapper.

And I loved it. Sports have been my life for as long as I can remember, and I found a way to enjoy sports that I sucked at. I loved playing even though I’ve always despised exercise, and I would have a good time even though I was almost always on an awful team (it took until my third year of playing soccer for my team to win a game). Sports were just what I would do besides school.

The only thing that caused me complaints was my aforementioned hatred of exercise (seriously, it’s the worst), but I never really thought much of it until my mom began to question some of my coaches for their methods. She would tell me about how youth sports used to be more about just kids having fun with less emphasis on being ultra-competitive. I know this might sound lame, but we’re talking about eight year olds in a recreational soccer league. You get a trophy no matter what.

From then on, I started really noticing how intense people get about kids’ sports, and it’s not a pretty sight. Parents get thrown out of games for screaming at officials, players who have yet to reach middle school get verbally abused by coaches at the slightest error, and for what? For a first-place ribbon instead of a second-place ribbon?

Of course, the goal of many parents is to give their child the best shot at becoming the next LeBron James, Lionel Messi, Andrew Luck or Albert Pujols (minus 2012). You can’t wait until you’re 18 to become Novak Djokovic or Tiger Woods, so kids have to start young to have a shot at being an elite athlete.

The problem, though, is that you know these athletes’ names because there are so few who get to that level. What about the 99.9 percent of kids out there playing youth sports? Are “winning is everything” and “your best is not good enough” really the messages we want to be sending our kids?

Naturally, competitiveness factors into sports, and it’s good to be competitive up to a certain point. But kids will be competitive on their own without those messages being drilled into their heads by adults. What kids can’t do on their own is put their latest Little League game in perspective. If your coach tells you that losing will ruin your life, then it’s going to ruin your life, at least for a while. And if you think this problem ends when kids reach middle school or high school, just take a look at the problems in college and professional sports.

Some of the big issues in sports right now can be traced directly to the attitudes ingrained in kids through youth sports. Football is dealing with problems from blows to the head and unnecessarily violent play. Baseball has had to deal with the whole steroid debacle. Basketball is seeing most of the top players skipping their education, or at least blowing it off, in order to make money now. Think about it: If you’re told to win at all costs as a six-year-old and every week of practice from then on, why wouldn’t you do whatever possible to get ahead?

Then again, it’s definitely a two-way street. If you’re growing up idolizing athletes that hit players in the head and take illegal substances and skip college for the money, it’s hard not to want to follow in their footsteps.

There will always be hypercompetitive kids with dreams of being a professional athlete who view youth sports as the first step on their path to stardom. But for the rest of us, youth sports are about having fun the way only kids can. And I just hope by the time I have kids, there’s still some fun left to be had in sports.

Jacob Jaffe isn’t afraid to admit he’s a momma’s boy. Send some of your own Mother’s Day stories to jwjaffe “at” stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @Jacob_Jaffe.

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