Stealing the Youth from Youth Sports

His name was Max Gray.  He carried a huge, faded army rucksack over his shoulder, filled to the brim with baseballs, helmets, and bats.  There wasn’t room for anything else.  Not even a cigarette.  So he stored that in the corner of his mouth, right next to a southern drawl so thick that anyone outside of Oklahoma would think the man was speaking a foreign language.

We would meet Max at the neighborhood ball fields once a week.  We’d park our bikes just outside the fence.  Upon arrival, he’d drop the bag on the ground and a dozen second graders would rush toward it, bathed in a plume of red clay dust.

“Y’all come gitcha’ a ball and start to ketchin.”

His methods were unorthodox.  The early years of kid-pitch baseball can be scary.  Most eight year olds can barely control their bladders, much less a curveball.  So, when I kept backing away from home plate with every pitch, Mr. Gray grabbed that green rucksack and put it right behind my heels.


A three letter word stretched out on his tongue in two syllables. He called each one of us by that name, as if we were all his children.

“I just put a mess’a angry rattlesnakes in this here bag.  And if you step on ‘em, theys a gonna’ bite-cha. So ya’ best stay in that there batter’s box.”

And everyone laughed. 

And everyone played.

The Surrey Hills Colts don’t have a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.  None of us played pro ball.  Heck, I don’t even think a single one of us was among the 2% of all athletes to earn a college scholarship.  But we all learned to throw a ball and “put some pepper on it” as Max would say.  We tested our courage against hot ground balls, putting our gloves on the ground and taking bad hops to the chin.  Cory Schroeder, the only one on the team man enough to play catcher, learned the value of a protective cup. 

We won some and we lost some.  But no matter the outcome, at the end of the game, Max would stand at the end of the dugout, tell us all he was proud of us, hand us each a little ticket and say,

“Now y’all go gitcha’ a sodey-pop.”

I loved that man. 

Max Gray died just a few short years ago.  When I heard the news, I felt like I had lost a piece of my childhood.  But sadly, I think Max Gray’s passing signaled something greater for me.  Perhaps you’ve seen it, too. 

It appears we’ve stolen the youth from youth sports.

I realize that indulging in nostalgia can be like covering the past with a fresh coat of paint.  I’m quite certain there were parents in my day who yelled at the refs and pushed their kids too far.  But today, the pressure feels greater somehow.  And I’m getting swept away.  My kids are still fairly young.  Just 8 and 10.  But when I see all of the opportunities for elite teams, travel tournaments, private lessons and year-round sports specialization, I ask myself:

“Are my kids getting left behind?”

“If I don’t take advantage of these opportunities, am I somehow harming my child?”

“Will they feel left out if they don’t participate?”

When I was a kid, each sport had a season, and you played with kids in the neighborhood.  Usually, a local pizza joint would pay for your uniforms in exchange for putting their logo on the back of the jerseys and a promise to host the end-of-year team party in their game room.

Today, the opportunities are endless. An ESPN study estimated that youth sports leagues handle $5 billion every year.  And CNBC reports that the youth sports travel business wasn’t even a category four years ago.  Now it’s a $7 billion juggernaut.  That’s billion.  With a “B.”  We’re not just talking about a few families here.  It is an industry all by itself.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying travel sports are bad.  Some kids thrive in this environment.  Their passion for the game is so great that they would be playing 24/7 if God didn’t require them to sleep.

But it’s not all kids.

In fact, even with all of the additional opportunities available, participation in youth sports is declining.  The Sports and Fitness Industry Association reports that from 2009 to 2014, kids’ participation in athletic activities has declined by 4%.  And the number of sports played by each child has decreased by 10%.  In theory, most families would have had more money to contribute to a child’s extra-curriculars in 2014 than they might have in 2009 at the height of the recession.  But still, the decline exists.


Researchers at Michigan State decided to ask the kids. Their Institute for the Study of Youth Sports found that 70% of kids quit playing sports by age 13.  We could chalk this up to the fact that kids just develop different interests after middle school.  Like music, or drama, or dating.  But it’s more than that.  The study showed that the number one reason kids provided for not playing sports was this:

“It’s just not fun anymore.”

A follow up survey conducted by George Washington University asked kids to rank over 80 different aspects of youth sports to determine what was “most fun” to “least fun.”  It was a long list, to be sure.  But when the ranking was done, the results were surprising.  The items at the top of the list were all things like “trying hard”, “getting to play”, “positive coaching”, and “sportsmanship.” 

And where was winning?




It appears that, unlike me, kids are more concerned about the process than the outcome.  And as much as I would like to think differently, perception is reality.  In my quest to teach my children a strong work ethic and to give them opportunities for excellence, I have subtly made my love contingent upon how they perform on the field.   All I have to do is think back over the past couple of seasons.  A crazed, sports-loving parent, yelling at my kids from the sideline during the middle of the game.

“Stay with your man, son!”


“Go Audrey!  Pass the ball!”

Only I’m not the coach.  But still I would offer advice from the stands.  Cheering when things went well.  And grimacing when it didn’t.  All in full view of my kids.

Apparently I’m not alone.  When researchers observed parents back in the late 80’s, they found that most parents were silent for nearly 90% of the game.  And when they did verbalize, only 5% of those comments were negative.  Two follow up studies in 1999 and 2007 found that parents are now far more involved in games and practice, and the number of negative or “performance contingent” comments has grown to 30%.

But we’re helping them, right?

Apparently, what kids want most from us is to simply be there, and to tell them we love them.  As for the game? When researchers asked kids what they would most like to tell parent spectators, two responses were the most popular.

“Just shut up,” and

“Let us play.”

If you would like to hear it in their own words, this must-watch video is pretty damn powerful.

We have met the enemy, and it is us. 

My good friend Margot Starbuck explains it well in her new book, Overplayed: A Parent’s Guide to Sanity in the World of Youth Sports.  She shows how we’ve taken a game that, by definition, should be fun, and have turned it into a job.  And we’ve done it with the best of intentions.  Our kids say they want to play, so we sign them up for lessons.  They say they want to be the best, so we have them try out for select teams.  When it stops being fun, we remind them of their commitments and tell them to stick it out until the bitter end.  Even if it means they miss out on time playing with friends, or going to church, or traveling on family vacations.  All the while our kids are saying:

Let. Us. Play.

It’s time we give the game back to our kids.  The revolution starts with us.

Because there is no honor in shouting insults at referees.  Just as there is no harm in cheering for kids on both sides of the ball.  Our role is not to project our own desires onto our children. To push, prod, advise and judge, all in the hopes of placing a shiny golden orb around their neck that proves their worth.

No, our role is something entirely different.  To model the selfless love of the Revolutionary who has gone before us.

Because in the end, very few people can recall who was crowned the Super Bowl MVP in 1998.  Or who won the Cy Young Award in 2007.  But every single one of us knows a Max Gray.  He’s someone who devoted time to you, without asking anything in return.  He believed in you, supported you, and encouraged you.  With smiles, hugs, and uplifting words when you were down. And win or lose, you knew that he loved you.  Without hesitation or condition.  Just the way God loves all of us. 

Yes, my friends, we must always remember that sports are sprints.  But the game of life is a marathon.  And our goal as parents should be to arrive at the finish line with our children at our side.  Helping us along.  Teaching us.  Reminding us.  That the most important thing we could ever do…

is just be mom and dad.

* If you're interested in how to change the game, check out the book Overplayed, or look into the Changing The Game Project.  Well worth a look!

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