I was a longtime soccer player, beginning with my town’s travel squad and progressing to co-captain my high school soccer team and Division 3 college soccer. I also swam, played tennis, basketball, ice hockey, and lacrosse — a different sport or two every season, and I continued to learn new ones throughout high school. I grew up when kids could do things like this. They didn’t have to commit to one sport and prioritize it above all overs in third grade. And I’m so pleased I did because being an athlete taught me leadership, persistence, collaboration, and sportsmanship. It equipped me with lifetime connections and a solid foundation of confidence for adulthood. I owe so much of who I am and what I have done to my years on the field, pool, court, and rink.
I couldn’t wait for my kids to play sports when I became a parent because I understood how much those experiences had influenced me. But I was completely unprepared for what I’d see in today’s kid’s athletics. Things had changed so significantly in a generation — the intensity, time commitment, high expense, and necessary specialty — that I wasn’t sure whether my children would benefit the same way I did.
And I was only just beginning to see what has now become a familiar refrain in the media: terrifying data regarding the consequences of sports overspecialization. On the physical side, young athletes who overspecialize face risks like as overuse injuries and reconstructions in children just entering high school. On the mental health front, there are frightening rates of anxiety and despair among great athletes, as illustrated by the terrible trend of collegiate players committing suicide. Parents, coaches, and teammates were often taken aback by the devastating outcome of these athletes’ problems, despite the fact that they appeared to be successful, happy student-athletes who had accomplished all they were “supposed to.”
My daughter recently asked me, her college soccer-playing mother, if she should play in college. My reaction? No way.
However, this is not a runaway train; parents can and should take charge, apply the brakes, and safeguard children from the enormous mental and physical costs of intensive specialization.
Even 15 years ago, when my eldest child was 5, I was surprised to learn that registration for his youth soccer league was closed months before the season began.
I didn’t want my child to be excluded, so my husband agreed to coach a team to take place. That early concern about my child missing the young sports train only became stronger over time. I used to spend my weekends in all types of weather, like many parents, watching my kids play game after game. We gave up vacation weekends together to accompany one of our children to a distant tournament, missing family milestones, and important events. Every week, our kids played soccer to the exclusion of all other sports. They saw teammates suffer from severe ailments before they reached adolescence. They sat on the sidelines and watched parents scold their children (and occasionally our children).
They had fun in the rain, snow, and wind. There were years when they liked it, years when they were bored, and years when they begged to stop.
My children gradually began to make their own decisions away from extreme specialization. One child decided he didn’t want to play college soccer, therefore committing to a club team wasn’t worth it. Another discovered that the great pressure from other parents on the sidelines was eroding his confidence, and he didn’t want to pay the emotional cost. Another just wanted to play for the sake of it and didn’t care enough to compete week after week.
(Full disclosure: one of my children still plays trip soccer, albeit on a small, manageable team.) I consider myself fortunate that our children did not burn out so spectacularly that they stopped completely — and even more fortunate that their athletic careers did not define my whole connection with them.
Our children choose to deviate from the specialty path; we did not have to make that decision for them. They currently participate in a variety of sports, some of which they excel at and others at which they are completely mediocre. They play for the delight of collaboration and the nourishment of friendship, as much as for the love of the game and the excitement of competition. They are no longer specialists. They are travelers. I am glad and even a bit pleased that our family escaped the hamster wheel uninjured.
After admitting my shortcomings in not keeping specialists away, failing to establish limits, and failing to shield my children from stress, there are two things I do not regret in my nearly two-decade journey. My children acquired so many good lessons from being competitive athletes, and I consider myself fortunate that they were able to strive to win and push themselves, learn about their talents and shortcomings, and develop their resilience and perseverance. Perhaps their athletic experiences will be as fundamental to their identities as mine were, but I’ve learned that’s not really the objective.