Youth community sports: To parents, youth sports an 'athletic arms race'

By Martha Irvine

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 21 2012 4:55 p.m. MST

ADVANCE FOR THURSDAY, NOV. 22, AND THEREAFTER - In this Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012 photo, Tyler Henson, 11, practices batting outside his home in Oak Forest, Ill. Tyler and his brother both play on separate year-round travel baseball teams and also manage to play football and basketball on their local park district teams. It means that sports has become their family's main focus, with their parents spending thousands of dollars each year for travel and gear. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)

Associated Press

Shawn Worthy admits he's a competitive guy — and a competitive parent, sometimes.

Yet even he was floored when a couple of moms he met at a pro junior golf tournament told him that their teen daughters would be entered in 30 such events this past summer.

"Why are these young ladies out on the golf course playing competitively four or five days a week?" Worthy asked himself.

His own 16-year-old daughter, Soleil, holds down a job while participating in a few tournaments each summer. She and the other young women are good, Worthy says, maybe talented enough to play in college.

But 30 tournaments?

"If you're a future Olympian, I get it. But for these kids who will never reach that level, that's what I don't get," says Worthy, a professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver with an interest in sports psychology.

"What does it say about our culture that we go to this extreme?" he asks. "And that we push our kids to this extreme?"

It's not just golf. Many parents, coaches and researchers see a steady upping of the ante in youth sports, with kids whose families can afford the time and cost involved playing more, practicing more and specializing in one sport at younger ages.

Parents are driven by a desire to help their children stand out and the fear that, if they don't, their kids will be left behind. To keep pace, they're often traveling hundreds if not thousands of miles a year for games and tournaments. Some parents send their children to personal trainers, or to the growing number of so-called elite training facilities that have opened in recent years.

Often, the goal is to simply land a spot on the local high school team, an accomplishment once taken for granted. Or, a young person may try to get on the roster in the growing private club team system — an even more exclusive route that some top teenage athletes are choosing, especially when high schools cut coaches and opportunities.

"It's an athletic arms race," says Scott VanderStoep, a psychology professor at Hope College in Holland, Mich., who studies youth sports.

And it starts early.

"It sort of spreads throughout the community and then it reduces down in age," VanderStoep says. "If it's OK for 14-year-olds, then it's OK for a 12-year-old, or a 10-year-old."

How can this obsession with playing sports exist in a country where the Centers for Disease Control say more than a third of young Americans are overweight or obese? The juxtaposition seems unlikely, but a longstanding survey from the National Sporting Goods Association found that youth participation in most team sports has steadily dropped in the last decade.

The number of 12- to 17-year-olds who played baseball in any kind of setting has, for instance, dropped 36 percent from 2001 to 2011, according to the survey. Basketball participation has dropped nearly 20 percent. Swimming and tackle football each dropped about 10 percent, volleyball participation 2 percent and soccer 1.4 percent.

Nonetheless, it would be oversimplifying to say the United States has become a nation of couch potatoes. Experts who track youth sports say many young people simply don't have the chance to play, or resources to do so.

Some schools in cash-strapped districts have cut back on sports and physical education. And even in some wealthier districts, high school populations have grown, leaving more kids to vie for fewer roster spots.

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