My hunch is that, like me, many of you have fond childhood memories that involve playing recreational pickup games and sports. Over time, youth sports have become more organized, more structured, more costly, more time consuming, and include more parental involvement. How did we get here and how do we right the youth sports ship?

Tens of millions of children participate in youth sports, and tens of millions of parents are involved in their practices, games and travel. In my new book, Why Less is More for WOSPs (Well-Intentioned, Overinvolved Sports Parents): How to be the Best Sports Parent You Can Be, I examine how youth sports have gone from a tool for learning values while keeping kids out of trouble to a subculture that consumes extraordinary amounts of time and money while exacerbating stress and frustration.

Several years ago, I was at a dinner honoring Dennis Denning, the legendary Cretin-Derham Hall and St. Thomas baseball coach. I bumped into a friend I hadn’t seen in years and mentioned I was writing a book about youth sports, parents and motivation. I listened intently as he told me story after story that demonstrated how youth sports were out of control.

He told me about a family that woke up their son at 4:30 a.m. on Saturdays during the summer. After a quick breakfast, they drove an hour to hockey practice from 5:30-7:30. Next, they were off to baseball practice from 8:30-10. Finally, soccer practice ran from 10:30-noon. He was only 8 years old!

At this moment – after three decades of involvement, first as a participant and then as a coach and father – I became aware of just how severely I had underestimated the bizarre world of youth sports.

My second a-ha moment occurred at the basketball camp that I have run at St. Thomas for 21 years. One afternoon, I explained to the campers that they would not have a referee but would make their own calls like many of us used to do. The announcement was met with protests.

“We’ll disagree about foul calls!”

“We’ll lose track of the score.”

“We won’t know how much time is left.”

“We’ll fight about who wins.”

“We’ll forget to substitute players.”

“We’ll argue about the rules.”

Six kids, six different responses.

I asked the campers how many would rather sit out than play without a referee. An astounding 80 percent of all campers said they’d rather not play without a referee.

In WOSPs, I highlight the challenge of balancing two important social goals: to excel and to feel good. Some parents err on the side of pushing their child to be the next prodigious athlete while other parents coddle their children, never wanting them to feel pain. This fits well in this era where everyone seems to get a trophy at every tournament.

What has gone wrong in the world of youth sports?

Quite simply, WOSPs are micromanaging youth sports to the degree that it is sapping the fun, motivation and learning that children should experience.

Parenting is a daily challenge, but as parents we must accept that many life lessons are only learned if parents step back and provide kids the space to learn, grow, fail and succeed – all with the long-range vision of helping them develop into healthy, well-adjusted adults who one day will watch their own children enjoy the wonderful world of sports.

Tauer is men’s basketball coach and a psychology professor at St. Thomas.

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7 Responses

  1. joe

    You could replace sport with music, academics, dance. Is 4-5 hours of homework a day any less destructive?

  2. Matt Schriner

    Great article, it’s nice to get information from my Alma Mater via twitter (CST 88). Your comments on referees is spot on. I would propose that the sport of Tennis, with its new electronic eye, could be the first to do away with officials. A chair umpire alone is all that is needed, let the players make their calls and the opponents appeal when necessary using the eye.

    As a youth coach of my son, I found Phil Jackson’s Positive Coach organization to be a major game changer (https://www.positivecoach.org). The process reinforces why athletics are positive for kids.

  3. Gregg

    When we play Ultimate Frisbee, there are no referees! The players must self-officiate.

  4. louisa

    I remember when my son was about 3rd grade and was in swim lessons. He didnt pass the test at the end of the class. He cried and cried and cried. I felt sorry for him but i realized it was the first time he ever failed at something. He was the type of kid that wouldnt try something if he feared he would be bad at it. I think failing that test was the best thing to happen to him. at that point it showed him everything is okay even if you dont always win. loosing is a great lesson in life. And sports help you to learn that.

  5. Stephen Young

    I coached 7 year of Catholic league soccer. Somewhere we lost track of the fun part of youth sports and decided it is only worthwhile if we win. Participation trophies have their place and I would argue 8 year olds are closer to them than to Stanley Cups and World Series rings. I coached the same group of boys from 1st grade through 7th grade. The first few years my primary goal was for them to enjoy the game and want to keep playing. Each year we would push winning a little more. I had 2 players who also played a lot of club ball and went on to Varsity High School careers. I challenged them to figure out how to interact with their less skilled teammates. Ultimately we became a very good rec level team and challenged for trophies. I doubt the experience would have been the same without building that foundation of fun first.

  6. Mike Adams

    I agree, and am also an author of a book on the topic. My book is called “8th Place Ribbon: A Generation of Wussies”. While a lot of the focus is on participation trophies and the messages that they send, I do spend quite a bit of time discussing the helicopter and fanatical parents.

  7. Susanne Leslie

    Greetings Dr. Tauer,
    An interesting article, thank you for weighing in on youth sports.
    I am looking for a good book on coaching. Do you have any recommendations?
    Thank you for your help,
    Susanne Leslie