Dirty Laundry: Denial runs deep among sports parents

Aisha Sultan

I knew the minute I saw a red-faced grown man hollering at his 5-year-old son during a soccer practice.

I didn’t want my kindergartner playing with this crowd. His little friend with the very loud father seemed so eager to please that I couldn’t decide if the scene left me depressed or angry. I wanted to tell the hyper dad to relax, but no one else seemed to think his behavior was unusual. In fact, he wasn’t the only parent so heavily invested in this no-stakes soccer practice.

Anyone who has recently attended a youth sports event knows that parental involvement has become a defining part of the games. Umpires report more aggressive behavior from parents and coaches. Doctors report more overuse injuries among younger athletes. And, young athletes burn out by the time they hit middle school.

Youth sports are big business selling big dreams. And, the denial runs deep among sports parents.

“The notion that you can train your child to become a college athlete is unrealistic,” says Mark Hyman, author of “Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession with Youth Sports and How it Harms our Kids.” They have a better chance being hit by a meteor than getting a full-ride sports scholarship, he said. The percentage of high school athletes who go on to even play in college, in all sports, is about 5 percent. And, a sliver of those athletes are awarded scholarship money to play.

He knows too well the risks the children face when parents focus on goals that lead to questionable decisions. Hyman writes about his own experience coaching his son’s baseball team.

“He had a good throwing arm. When he pitched, we won. And I really liked the idea of winning because the other parents seemed to like me a lot. He pitched a lot more than he should have.”

When his son wasn’t pitching, he was catching. He ended up having Tommy John surgery (ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction) when he was 18.

“I thought I was helping him be the best player he could be,” Hyman said. “I did the opposite. I prevented him from being the best player he could have been.”

He says one of the most astonishing statistics he has come across is that 70 percent of children drop out of organized sports by age 13.

“To me, that suggests, what we are giving kids, they don’t really like or want that much.”

So, what has changed so dramatically from the days when neighborhood pickup games were more common than twice-weekly practice commutes?

“The emotional investment that parents have in their kids’ sports lives is related to the financial investment we have in their sports,” he explained. Plenty of parents spend hours of their weekend and off-hours driving and watching their children practice and play. Youth sports have become more professionalized and played for the entertainment of adults as much as (if not more than) for the enjoyment of children.

Expectations can spiral out of control, and there is a certain cachet and prestige for parents of star athletes, he said.

“It’s very easy to be seduced by these goals,” Hyman said.

We treat our children, who end up specializing in one sport at a young age, like professional athletes, he said. Some children will end up playing one sport year-round while even pro athletes get an offseason to recover and recuperate. Hyman has talked to doctors who say they’ve seen young athletes unable to tell their parents they want to stop playing to the extent that they develop psychosomatic injuries as a way to escape a sport. If you ask a child why he or she plays a sport, the most common response is because they want to have fun. When did parents lose sight of that simple goal?

“Give a lot of thought to your reasons for getting your kids involved in sports,” Hyman advises. “If you are hoping your child gets a scholarship to college, hire a biology tutor. Don’t teach your child to be a goalie.”

Aisha Sultan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Contact her at asultan@post-dispatch.com