Ep 205: Pressure, Pain, And Kids’ Athletics

Episode Summary

Linda Flanagan, author of Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania are Ruining Kids Sports, joins us to discuss how the competitive culture of kids’ sports can be damaging to both parents and teens.

Show NotesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Does your kid love sports? Whether they’re sliding into home base or scoring a touchdown, sports can be an incredible way for kids to stay healthy, make friends, and learn the value of teamwork. For some kids, sports can become a way of life, granting them a chance to travel or even bringing in college scholarship money. With so much to offer, it seems like sports are the perfect activity to sign kids up for.

But it turns out that kids’ sports aren’t always the character-building extracurriculars we think they are. The youth sports industry is valued at over nineteen billion dollars, and that money is coming from parents who feel obligated to pay for everything from equipment to sports tourism. Severe injuries from playing too much can destroy our kids’ long term health, and the status-driven nature of these sports takes a toll on our families and our culture as a whole! It’s time to take a critical look at our kids’ sports teams, and decide if they’re doing more harm than good.

This week, we’re joined by Linda Flanagan, author of Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania are Ruining Kids Sports. Linda is a freelance journalist, researcher, former cross country coach and mom to an athlete herself! Her work has been featured in The Atlantic and Runner’s World, and she’s a regular contributor to NPR’s education site MindShift. Today, Linda is warning us about the dark side of kids’ sports, and what we can do to help our young athletes stay happy and healthy despite it all.

In the episode, Linda and I are covering the damaging effects sports can have on families, why the pressure to win is harming our kids, and how we can help teens create a healthier connection to the sport they love.

The True Cost of Kids’ Sports

If playing sports was totally free, the world would probably be a better place…but unfortunately most kids’ sports force parents to spend a pretty penny. Memberships for private club teams, equipment, uniforms and traveling to games gets pretty expensive, meaning low income families are typically excluded, says Linda. And it gets worse–research indicates that the more money parents spend on sports, the less kids enjoy them. Linda explains that this is likely due to increased pressure kids feel knowing how much money is riding on their soccer victory.

The damage to families goes past the financial costs, however. The current culture of kids’ sports drags parents into an obsession with status that can be very unhealthy, says Linda. She explains that kids’ wins and losses can start to feel like our own, and it’s not always easy to draw strong boundaries. This infatuation with our kids’ victories can even cause us to behave poorly at their games, yelling at referees or cursing at kids on the other team, Linda says. This isn’t exactly the kind of good citizenship we hoped kids would learn from these sports!

Linda points out that traveling can also be a seriously damaging factor for families, especially for single parents. It can spread parents thin and force them to prioritize one sibling over another, she says. Kids are very attuned to this kind of imbalance in parents’ attention, and it can have lasting effects. Linda explains that this is especially true if one sibling is an athlete while the other enjoys more internal activities like reading. In the episode, we talk more about the strain kids’ sports can put on families and parents.

While the family unit as a whole can be seriously affected, the damage that modern day youth athletics has on kids can be even more severe. Linda and I dive into the overwhelming pressure and even physical harm these sports can cause in our interview.

The Dangers of Too Much Pressure

We often look at college admission and scholarships as a major benefit for young athletes…but it can be a source of major stress too. Many teens who joined sports for fun as kids feel immense pressure to keep playing in order to get into better schools. Linda reveals in our interview that prospective students are 14x as likely to get into Harvard if they’re recruited to play on the schools’ sports teams. This can put kids in a difficult dilemma–and parents too. We might feel like we need to put all our money and time into kids’ sports careers, to ensure that they have a bright future.

The pressure doesn’t stop there, says Linda. Prestigious, competitive club teams perpetuate an individualist approach to sports, she says, by pitting kids against each other for spots on the team, individual accolades and even financial aid. Plus, by recruiting kids from all over, these club teams aren’t striving to create community in a local place–they’re aiming solely for victory. In the episode, Linda also explains how these teams tend to cause tension between teens and their high school teams by forcing them to pick between the school team and the private club.

When teens feel overwhelming pressure to succeed at their chosen sport, they’ll do anything…including permanently injuring themselves, says Linda. Recent research has indicated that the number of serious injuries sustained by kids on the field has increased at a staggering rate. Linda uses the example of an ACL tear in our interview–an incredibly common sports injury among kids that requires surgery and usually causes arthritis after 10 years! The annual rate of ACL tears in the Boston area alone has increased from 500 to 2500 in less than a decade, says Linda.

So are sports all bad? Is there anything we can do to shield ourselves and our kids from the havoc these sports can wreak?

Making Sports Fun Again

To help ease all the toxicity of youth sports culture, Linda recommends that kids engage in other activities and interests too. If not, they’re susceptible to a syndrome she calls “athletic identity foreclosure.”  This occurs when kids have no other interests outside of sports–and then suddenly can no longer play due to injury or other factors. If they’re identity is entirely wrapped up in the sport they play, teens can feel like they no longer have anything to offer the world and experience a serious identity crisis.

It can also help for parents to set up boundaries for their involvement in kids’ teams, says Linda. She believes it’s important for parents to miss a few games here and there, so that kids know parents have their own lives! This allows kids to take ownership of the activity outside of parents’ interest, taking  some pressure off and reminding them that they can always quit if they’re no longer dedicated to the sport. It’s good for parents too, as it allows them to pursue activities that aren’t all about their children!

The bottom line is, sports aren’t bad–but toxic sports culture is! Sports can be fun, educational and great for kids’ health…in fact, playing a varsity sport in high school is the number one predictor of lifelong physical fitness, says Linda. But alternatively, college athletes have been shown to live a lower quality of life and experience less general happiness due to physical and mental stress, she explains. If we want our kids to benefit from athletics, we’ll have to mend our youth sports culture and practice moderation.

In The Episode…

Linda and I discuss a variety of issues plaguing the youth sports world, with lots of great advice for parents along the way! In addition to the topics discussed above, we also talk about…

  • How sports tourism affects teens
  • Why it’s dangerous for kids to specialize in the sports world
  • How parents can keep their social lives separate from kids’ sports
  • Why starting sports too young can be harmful for kids

If you enjoyed this week’s episode, you can find more from Linda on Twitter at @Lindaflanagan2. Thanks for listening! Don’t forget to share and subscribe and we’ll see you next week!

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Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: I just read, Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania Are Ruining Kids’ Sports, and Why It Matters. How did you sort of start getting interested in this? What caught your attention about the changes in kids’ sports and why did you think that it was something so important to write a book about?

Linda: Well, I guess I would say I first started being troubled by what I was seeing when I started watching my son play, my youngest, who’s a good athlete. And I felt that I was too invested in it. And I could sense that I was like weirdly invested in his success. Disproportionately delighted by his star turns, and irrationally sad when he didn’t play well. I was like, what is this? It bothered me. I could sense it was off.

Linda: And then I’ve also been an athlete for most of my life. I still run regularly. But when I began coaching, then I saw how youth sports had changed and become so much more serious and high stakes and intense. When I started coaching, it was in the early two thousands and it’s only gotten more intense. I was just troubled by how it all felt very distorted. And as a result of that, I started poking around doing some research and wrote some articles. And then basically that turned into a book.

Andy: There’s a lot of really interesting stories in the book, but also some really fascinating research on the changes in youth sports. And one of the big things is the money. It says here that in 2019, the youth sports industry was valued at $19.2 billion, which was an increase of more than 90% since 2010. And is actually more than the NFL. So that’s a huge change in nine years to increase 90%. What’s going on there? Walk me through how that could be.

Linda: Businesses recognized that parents have an interest in athletics, and watching their kids play and encouraging them to become better athletes, and they recognized there was a market there and began investing. So there’s the big equipment companies like sports equipment; Nike, Adidas, Under Armor. And then the media companies that make huge amount of money televising this stuff, so ESPN, Sky, the YES Network, and they’ve sort of honed in on an area of anxiety for parents, honestly. It’s both an interest and a point of anxiety, and have profited off it.

Linda: And a good part of this is the sports tourism industry. This began, which really it was launched in 1997, really with Disney’s Wide World of Sports, which it’s really so fascinating how that came to be. Disney recognized that they were losing the teenage cohort with its theme parks. The Magic Kingdom was no longer so enthralling and they figured well, what can we do to get teenagers here? So they took a gamble and built this sports complex; 700,000 acres of playing fields for 60 different sports, this giant thing. And it’s only grown.

Linda: And I got this from a man who was involved at Disney, an executive there when they were making these decisions about building the complex. And they reckon that even if it didn’t make money, it would get, by just having the sports complex, it would draw families and that it would then put more heads in beds, which is how Disney makes money. And it proved to be extremely successful. Not only was it, when there was an economic downturn, as there was after 911, when families started withdrawing and not feeling nervous about travel, they would continue to go to the Wide World of Sports for their kids championship games, because that was one area where parents didn’t want to hold back.

Linda: So, the other municipalities picked up on this and recognized, “Hey, why don’t we try this? Why don’t we build a giant sports complex?” And as a result, they’ve up all over the country. Those complexes pull people, it generates all kinds of money. Not universally successfully, I should add. I mean, a lot of these complexes don’t work. But they pull money from families to go. Families are encouraged to travel to these places, to play tournaments. And that’s where all the money is. For parents, the biggest expense is the travel industry, hotels and all that.

Andy: Right. Well, and investment of time.

Linda: Yes, up to 20 hours a week by some. Which sounds insane, but speaking to a lot of families here, it really adds up. It adds up. You spend a lot of time on the weekends, your hours evaporate.

Andy: It really paints an interesting story in the book, how this growing industry then leads to all kinds of other things and changes in the culture, and in the way that we think about sports, because it creates all kinds of pressures for all of these businesses that run on sports to make them seem more important. And to perpetuate this culture. It kind of trickles down, I guess, to families and to all of us.

Linda: The great sports sociologist, Jay Coakley, calls that the selling of specialization. That if you have these private club teams that start to recognize that parents want opportunities for their kids to play intense sports. Then they have their own little infrastructure of coaches they need to pay, and facilities to keep up. Those clubs, they can’t be seasonal, it can’t be like lacrosse season is just in the spring. So as a result, there’s an incentive on their part to say, “Well, we’re going to keep our coaches employed year round. We better have kids to coach.” So it encourages, the specializing, the club owners, encourage families to specialize in part to pay the bills.

Andy: I just read about this Isaiah Berlin’s famous division of people into two types; the fox who knows a little about a lot, and the hedgehog who knows a lot about a little. The way youth sports have been monetized has compelled kids to burrow into one sport at an early age, making hedgehogs of them all. Athletic foxes aren’t extinct, but they have become gravely endangered.

Linda: Yeah. That’s a reference to the multi-sport athletes. We now, for the most part, kids are so strongly encouraged to take up one sport and to focus entirely on that, that they’re just… And not only one sport, sometimes they’re encouraged to focus on just one position in one sport, which is even narrower. So that the fox or the multi-sport athlete is no longer nearly as prevalent. We should also add that low income kids who can’t afford either the money or the time that these things cost are generally left out. That’s a whole other angle, a whole other dimension of the youth sports universe that’s kind of unhealthy for all.

Andy: I think an interesting byproduct of all this is as we have to invest more and more time, energy and money in our kids’ sports careers, then of course we just get more invested in them, and we start to really care more or I guess be more involved or concerned-

Linda: Consumed by.

Andy: Yeah, it starts to just to take over more of our head space.

Linda: Yes.

Andy: And we get emotional about it and everything. And of course we can’t help it. It’s one thing when it used to be like kids just would go off and play sports and it would just be more like a thing that they do for fun on their own. And now that it’s becoming like a family activity, the parents are shelling out all this cash and spending 20 hours a week driving them around to practices and tournaments, in other cities and stuff like that. That, well just naturally, it becomes a lot more pressure from mom and dad in that you really just get so much more consumed and invested, and think that’s a really interesting byproduct of all this.

Andy: And you talk about why we do this. And parents say things like they couldn’t possibly disappoint their sports-obsessed children and making sacrifices for their offspring. But that also an important factor that a lot of us don’t admit to is status among our peers. We parents, you write, latch onto our kids’ virtuosity in sports and celebrate it as our own. And you kind of alluded to that a little bit earlier with your own son.

Linda: With my own freakish reaction to my nine-year old’s basketball skills. It is one of those subjects that we’re not generally comfortable talking about in this country, as a whole, but also in so far as it pertains to our kids’ activities and their sports or any of their successes that we parents have just gotten so unhealthily latched onto their successes and failures and just see them as a reflection of our own.

Linda: And this is not just sports I should add. It’s just that sports are so visible and a child can have such visible success in sports. It’s a natural place as the parent to feel so very proud and to have that glory reflected back on you.

Andy: Right.

Linda: But it is an uncomfortable thing. And to acknowledge, I think, I do think the emotions that are on display in the bleachers and on the sidelines are often really about how we parents feel about this is embarrassing. Your child is benched, the coach ignores them, that’s why parents get angry, because it does feel like it’s a reflection on us. And I think to some extent that’s unavoidable and it’s not all bad. I mean, it’s fine to feel proud of your children. I don’t mean to suggest that there’s something pernicious about that, but it’s just when it gets exaggerated and out of proportion, which is where I believe it is now.

Linda: And I think if we parents could maybe be a little more honest with ourselves about why we’re doing this and like, okay, it’s not really just because they love it, necessarily. It’s maybe because we love it too. And our lives get wrapped up in it. And our social life becomes… The parents of the kids our child plays with, it just becomes sort of suffocating for everybody, I think. But status is an awkward subject, but I think there’s no question that weighs heavily in how we think and feel about our kids’ sports, and why we want them to play.

Linda: And I can tell you in my town, lacrosse is just huge. Lacrosse is one of those sort of blue blood sports, predominantly white. It’s a great route to college for division three, especially. It’s just the thing to do, the thing to do, is to play lacrosse. And you start your kids younger and younger. I think they have travel teams here in my community in third grade.

Linda: And I think I mentioned a story in the book about a friend of mine who offers this low-key lacrosse camp for kids, little kids, and up through middle school, I think. And she tries to emphasize fun and just enjoyment and learning the skills. She said, “Parents call and ask if they’re too late, if their kindergartner is starting too late. Should they have done this sooner?” I mean, that’s just insane. But that’s what has happened with this forces of specialization. They just press kids to take up sports at younger and younger ages at a more serious level. It’s insane.

Andy: Yeah, because then how are they going to compete with the kids who already started in preschool and they’re already working with coaches, and they’re learning those skills.

Linda: And what about the toddlers who’ve been out there with their lacrosse sticks? Those who’ve been read lacrosse stories when they were in utero. Andy, let me ask you, did you play sports growing up?

Andy: I did play some sports, yeah. Soccer, baseball, basketball. Then actually I didn’t play lacrosse until high school. I was resonating with you, you said a lot of kids do start in kind of ninth, 10th grade and things like that with lacrosse.

Linda: Was it crazy where you were?

Andy: No. I do remember even with lacrosse then, there was the camps in the off season and the coaches to work with. It was never ending that how much you could keep working on it if you wanted to be really good at it. My school was not that good at it. So it was more just kind of fun. I just played because some of friends were on the team and I thought it’d be a fun thing.

Linda: Well, as we were talking about parental investment and stuff, I forgot to mention that there’s a really good study done by Travis Dorsch who runs the Families in Sport Lab at Utah State, that found that there’s an inverse correlation between how much parents spend and the child’s enjoyment. So the more parents spend, the less kids enjoy it. Well you can imagine, because they feel it’s suddenly about, “Why are you doing the sport?” “Because mom and dad really want me to do well. They’re spending this much, I really better perform.” It’s bound to have an effect on the child’s enjoyment.

Andy: You talked about some really interesting research as well about how it affects the whole family sometimes. The more families are investing in sports and then they start to get into having to travel a lot. And that kind of involves really splitting up the family a lot on weekends and taking one kid to this tournament in this city, and the other one to that city, one parent will take the kid or instead of doing things together as a family, you’re splitting yourselves up and going here and there and everywhere and repeating that over and over again every weekend for months and months of the year has got to have a huge impact on families.

Linda: Well, and that presupposes a two-parent household family. I don’t know what the numbers are, but I think it’s about half the families in this country are not two parent, there’s a lot of single mothers, single fathers, multiple families mixed up, and the travel tournaments and the expectation that kids and families can do this, puts enormous pressure on families. And if you’re a single parent, it’s essentially a barrier to entry for anyone who doesn’t have a lot of money and a lot of time because if you’re a single parent and say you have three kids, I don’t know how you’re going to manage that.

Linda: I’ve also thought in those families where say one kids into sports and the other two aren’t, for example, my family where my older two were not especially interested, quasi, sort of vaguely interested, but not invested in it, wasn’t their main thing. And my younger one was. That adds a weird dynamic among the siblings. Why are the parents, why are we spending so much time going to his games and coaching him and taking care of his interests? And kids are acutely aware of any kind of imbalance in parental attention or affection. It’s unavoidable if one child plays sports and the others don’t, or have sort of non-monetary interests like reading.

Andy: There’s also a lot of pressure coming from the benefits that athletes get in the college admissions, the whole race for getting into selective colleges. I thought this was really interesting, some of these statistics you have in here about how large the benefits are. Harvard confirmed that athletes, they admitted, are significantly weaker than ordinary applicants and athletes are like 14 times more likely to be admitted.

Linda: That’s what came out in that recent lawsuit against Harvard a couple of years ago. It was a group that was alleging discrimination against Asians and their admissions process. And the colleges are very reluctant to come forth with any… They guard this data very carefully, how they go about making their decisions and all that. But every now and then it leaks out. And this lawsuit is what enabled this information to become available and analyzed. And it’s plain as day that the athletes have an enormous edge in admissions, and parents have recognized this. Nothing is sure in college admissions, but every year the coaches need to field teams and they need new people. So that’s one thing for sure. So it’s kind of, in a way, it can become a strategy to get into those schools, and not just Harvard, any of them that have teams, and most schools do.

Linda: And I’ve spoken to many families, and I think most parents, when they start getting their kids into sports, it doesn’t start as, “Well, I want my seven-year-old to play travel lacrosse so that she’ll have better odds of getting into Amherst.” I don’t think that’s the original thinking. I think it’s generally well-intended and sports are good for you and moving around and teams, those are all great, but then it kind of morphs because it takes over parents’ lives and kids’ lives, but then it becomes, “Well, at least she’ll get into a better college.” And then that almost by default becomes the rationale for continuing to play and continuing to sacrifice so much.

Andy: And continuing to sort of escalate the levels of competitiveness or, “Well, should we pay for this personal trainer that they’re recommending? I don’t know, it’s going to cost a lot, but it might really help her stay competitive and maybe get a scholarship, that’d be really helpful. Or get into a better school.” “Yeah, it might. Yeah, it’s probably worth it. We should do it.” I think it plays into the calculus a lot in terms of what you’re willing to do or what sacrifices you’re willing to make. And I mean, wow, what wouldn’t you sacrifice for your child’s future? So when that’s part of the equation, it maybe makes us make decisions we wouldn’t be making otherwise if it was just really about the sport and whether they enjoy the sport.

Linda: Well, just the other day I was speaking to a woman who’s got three kids and they’re all on this train, and they’re all basically in high school or first year of college and she was going over how much time they spent running around driving hither and yon, and splitting up the family and disappearing on every weekend. And I asked her if they would continue to do this if colleges suddenly magically eliminated the admissions advantages? And she kind of thought for a second and said, “Yeah, we wouldn’t want to play this intensely. We wouldn’t be doing this.” It’s because of the prize at the end, which is a real prize for some families. And for some kids, it will be an edge in admissions. If that edge were gone, I think the whole thing would come collapsing down.

Andy: Right. Yeah, totally.

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About Linda Flanagan

Linda Flanagan is the author of  Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania are Ruining Kids Sports.

Linda is also a freelance journalist and researcher. Her writing on sports has appeared in The Atlantic, Runner’s World, and on NPR’s education site MindShift, where she is a regular contributor.  She is a founding board member of the New York City chapter of the Positive Coaching Alliance and a 2020–21 advisory group member for the Aspen Institute’s Reimagining School Sports initiative.

A mother of three and a lifelong athlete herself, Flanagan lives in New Jersey.

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