But often it also causes injuries, social anxiety and mental health issues for athletes and parents.
Flanagan knows youth sports inside and out. The 59-year-old writer from Summit, New Jersey, had three grown children with her, one of whom she was into sports. She also coached women’s sports from 2002 until she was 2019. CNN spoke with Flanagan about her work and learned more about what parents can do to ensure their children participate in youth sports programs on their own terms.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CNN: What’s good about youth sports?
Linda Flanagan: We have a lot. Exercise is a plus. Every week we learn more and more about how important exercise is. Develop a lifelong commitment to mobility and exercise. Sports build friendships. They teach teamwork. At a time when kids are obsessed with technology, sports keep them away from their phones. Sports provide opportunities for children to get to know other children from other backgrounds. Youth sports can be great levelers in that sense.
CNN: What negative opinions have emerged regarding youth sports?
Flanagan: Youth sports are hierarchical. Participation is determined by household income. If you are on the lower income side, you are less likely to participate. Her third of children in low-income housing are inactive and not playing at all. There is too little (participation) at this low end. Also, at the upper limit (among families who can afford to participate), there is too much participation. There are various club teams.
It is a feast or famine situation: a feast in low-income areas and a feast between high-income (set). High-income families also tend to specialize in sports at a young age. Parents begin to think that this is the only way. And because they push, kids get hurt from playing too much, they burn out, and they want to quit. Many children quit before entering high school. No more joy for them.
CNN: What’s making youth sports worse, according to your research?
The second cause is the changing perspective of childhood. This is a cultural change. From the 1970s to his 1990s, kids moved from employees to bosses. The whole idea of what parents are expected to do for their children and what children mean to them has changed. accompanied by the status of My parents didn’t put their status on how their kids did in sports.
CNN: How are parents complicit in this issue?
Flanagan: That middle chunk, the issue of kids transitioning from employee to boss — it’s a big problem for parents. It’s hard to resist the pressure to do the best you can for your child. Most parents start with good intentions. This problem starts naturally when children start doing well.
Parents are reluctant to admit how important this is to them. Sometimes it matters too much. We invest too much. It’s time to flip from love for the child to ego satisfaction for the parent. It’s time to deprive young people of the fun of sports. We should be development midwives, not primary recipients of rewards. It is a slippery slope.
CNN: How do parents know their youth’s obsession with sports is getting out of hand?
Flanagan: Parents can start by asking themselves a few questions. How would you feel if your child decided to quit? Am I devastated? How long does it take you to talk about your child’s sports performance at a cocktail party or in person? These are all important questions to answer.
CNN: What happens when a child specializes in one sport?
Flanagan: Apples are good for children, but if your child wants to eat apples all day, would you feed them? One thing is too much. It is not healthy for children to specialize in one thing. Children need a wide range of developmental experiences.
Every medical professional I have spoken to has absolute consensus that sports specialization is not good for children.It is not good for physical development, it is not good for emotional development. College coaches want their kids to play multiple sports. The best athletes play multiple sports. Those who claim it are those who benefit from it.
Specializing before puberty is not in children’s best interests. By the time you’re 14 or 15, you may be old enough to make your own decisions. Still, most people can burn out. Then there are the long-term consequences of overdoing it in children’s sports.
Every year in my town, I hear about a junior high school girl who has torn her ACL (knee ligament) and is playing lacrosse. Usually she’s 12 or she’s 13. One study found that half of people with a torn ACL will develop arthritis within 10 years. Something is missing here.
CNN: What’s the solution? How can parents ‘take back the game’, as your book title says?
Flanagan: Here are four principles to guide you as a parent. The first is to look at your child and realize that the interest and passion for these things must come from them. If you’re an adult who mandates participation in sports, it doesn’t work. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t let them move around a bit, but you should let them make as many decisions as possible.
Second principle: maintain the whole family. The youth sports industry is trying to tear you apart. If you get into it, you’ll find moms going to Maryland with one kid for tournaments on weekends, and dads going to New York with another kid. It doesn’t have to be. Start later, stay local, and oppose stupidity. Parents need to recognize their choices and use them to stay sane.
A third piece of advice: try to keep your perspective. Everything in youth sports always seems more important than it really is. It’s not that important. For insight, talk to older adults who have gone through this. Imagine what this dilemma will be like in his next five years. It’s okay if your child misses some games. If your child wants to go out, it’s OK.
Last but not least, parents should model what they want their children to learn. A lot of this is following a positive image of adulthood. All we do is take care of them. No wonder they don’t want to grow up. It doesn’t have to be.
CNN: How can parents navigate the inevitable fights over shrinking?
Flanagan: Parents are not helpless. You can protect your family and take care of your children so that they can play sports on their own terms. Parents can’t wait for the system to fix itself. They have to stop it themselves, put the flag on the ground, and say, “We’re not doing this anymore.” It’s okay for parents to step back and let their children remain children.
Matt Villano California-based writer and editor. His work has appeared in The New York Times, CNN, and more.