The days of furthering a kid’s athletic career by telling him to go play outside are ancient history.
Today, sports is big business, and moms and dads act accordingly. There are travel teams for their kids to play on, club memberships, clinics, individual coaching, expensive equipment.
Parents are spending thousands of dollars a year — just the travel expenses for youth sports is $7 billion a year, according to a recent report from CNBC — on kids’ sports careers.
But that investment may be misguided, according to a new study from Utah State University’s Families in Sport Lab. Researchers have found that the more parents spend on youth sports, the more likely their kids are to lose interest. There’s nothing worse than a sullen 11-year-old goalie.
“The more money folks are investing, the higher pressure kids are perceiving,” says Travis Dorsch, an assistant professor in Utah State’s department of family, consumer and human development. “More pressure means less enjoyment. As kids enjoy sports less, their motivation goes down. (So) the indirect effect is, yes, spending more money and less motivation.”
Parents justify their financial outlay by saying they’re increasing the child’s chances for a college scholarship or, down the line, a lucrative professional career. But a look at the numbers shows they may be deluding themselves.
According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, only about 2 percent of high school athletes receive athletic scholarships to college. Even fewer move on to the professional ranks. For example, just 11.6 percent of college baseball players go on to minor or major leagues.
The figures for athletes in other sports are even smaller: 1.7 percent of participants in football make the pros, 1.2 percent in men’s basketball and 0.9 percent in women’s basketball.
Further, the amount of scholarship money awarded is less than one might imagine. A 2008 analysis by The New York Times found the typical athletic scholarship valued at $10,409. Yes, $10,000 is something. But the College Board reports that the cost of an in-state public college education for the 2013-2014 academic year averaged $22,826.
The Utah State study involved 163 families. Parents were surveyed on family demographic variables, gross household income and investment levels in youth sports participation.
The kids were asked about parental pressure, their own enjoyment and their plans to future participation. The results indicated that the more money parents invest, the more pressure the kids perceive.
The problem, Dorsch believes, is in the system. Youth sports in U.S. are not set up for participation’s sake or fitness or — gasp — fun, but to transform a young athlete into the best, to make that elite team, to reach the top of the pyramid.
“Why do we do this whole youth sport industry thing in general?” he asks. “I think it’s to help kids acquire life skills and have fun. If the goal is to get them to participate longer — the dropout rates peak at 11, 12, 13 years old, unfortunately — we want them to be motivated and enjoy the experience. We should not do things that pressure them out of sport.”
A better parental approach would help, he says.
“If you miss a game,and your kid comes home, what’s the first question most parents ask? ‘Did you win?’ That’s always first. And that’s implicitly what the child is perceiving,” Dorsch says.
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“If we can teach parents to ask, ‘Did you have fun?’ ‘What did you learn?’ ‘Are you excited about next time?’ and make statements like, ‘I love watching you play,’ those things go a long way in creating motivation in our children.”
Besides which, all that money parents are spending might be better invested in a college savings fund.
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