Youth community sports: To parents, youth sports an 'athletic arms race'
An annual survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations shows that, in the new millennium, the number of student athletes has grown because the overall youth population also has steadily increased. But if you divide the number of athletes who play a particular sport by the number of schools, comparing 2000 to 2010, roster sizes in some sports have actually shrunk — by an average of at least one athlete per school per sport in such games as basketball, soccer, baseball and volleyball.
These dwindling opportunities have only fed the hyper-competitive atmosphere, says VanderStoep, who admits that, as a dad of two daughters who play volleyball, even he feels beholden to the system.
For his daughters, that has meant weight-lifting camps and tournaments, and seemingly endless required practices and packed schedules. Games could be any night of the week — and that has made it more difficult for his youngest daughter to find the time to play other sports.
"You feel obligated to do it. You want to give your kids the opportunity," he says. "And if they don't show up, they lose opportunities to play."
Corinne Henson, a mom in suburban Chicago, knows about those hard choices. Her sons, 11-year-old Tyler and 14-year-old Dylan, play year-round baseball on different traveling teams and also manage to squeeze in basketball and football for their local park district.
The boys do it because they love it — live for it, really.
"I wouldn't give up sports for anything," Dylan says as he sits on the couch in his living room waiting for football practice to start.
"Me either," his younger brother quickly adds.
But there are sacrifices, especially for their parents. Time spent on sports has meant giving up their longtime campsite in Indiana where they'd kept a travel trailer. They simply have no time to go there.
"Our vacations are baseball trips," Henson says. She figures they spend several thousand dollars a year on travel, team fees and equipment. Often, one parent is taking Dylan to one game or practice, while the other parent carts Tyler to the other.
When they were younger, their boys regularly missed birthday parties and other events because of games. But the most difficult decision came earlier this year, when Dylan's best friend was struck and injured by a hit-and-run driver.
Their town, Oak Forest, Ill., had a fundraiser for the friend in July. But Dylan, a catcher who is captain of his traveling baseball team, had four tournament games that day. He decided he had to be at the tournament, and showed up at the fundraiser as it was wrapping up.
His friend understood. "I would have done the same thing," he told Dylan. The traveling team won the tournament, likely because Dylan stayed, his mom says.
"But it's so hard, as a parent."
Diane Hughes, a mom in New Jersey, also knows that many outsiders would look at her 10-year-old son's travel-team baseball schedule and shake their heads.
"It really sounds crazy, I know," Hughes says.
It often means he has multiple three-hour practices each week, a 45-minute drive from their home. Weekend tournaments usually consist of four or five games. And, Hughes figures, she spends $5,000 to $6,000 a year so he can participate — an amount that is pretty standard and often more, especially for those who seek out elite training.
There are many positives, Hughes says.
"In the long run, I want him to have his time structured, so I love the fact that he loves it so much. It's exercise. It's building a skill. It's fun — and it's fun to watch them," Hughes says.
Her biggest concern? That, by the time he gets to high school, he'll be tired of baseball.
Back in Illinois, Henson works to keep her boys' sports expectations in check.
"They want the pro athlete dream more than I do, or my husband does," she says. "It would be great if they got a scholarship for sports. But it would be better if they got a scholarship for academics. That's what will get them further."
In the Henson house, the rule is simple: "Homework first," says mom, who's a teacher.