SALT LAKE CITY — My family knows how cutthroat the world of youth sports can be.
When my sister was in the fourth grade, she ripped up her jersey and jumped from a moving car following a field hockey game that didn't go as planned. The infamous tale leaves us heaving in laughter now, but it wasn't so funny at the time — especially for my mother who luckily, wasn't driving too fast.
Sports are generally considered a healthy activity for kids, providing physical, social and mental benefits, according to the National Council of Youth Sports. But there can be drawbacks as well.
According to The Center for Kids First, 30 million to 40 million children play organized sports in the U.S. every year. As participation in youth sports increases, so do injuries including concussions, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The costs of purchasing equipment and uniforms, team fees and travel can be prohibitive for many families. And for elite athletes, the pressures to keep winning or earn a college scholarship can cause crippling anxiety.
As Americans start to think more critically about the impact of competitive sport participation on kids and families, Norway seems to have found a way to preserve the benefits of youth sports programs, while eliminating unnecessary pressure, competition and financial burden, according to New York Times reporter Tom Farrey.
In Norway, 93 percent of children grow up playing organized sports because costs are low and access is wide, Farrey reports.
The country’s Children’s Rights in Sport is an eight-page document, introduced in 1987 and updated in 2007, that outlines rules for youth sports teams. It states that children should “decide for themselves how much they would like to train,” and can even opt out of games if they want.
Before age 11, publication of game scores and rankings is prohibited, as are regional championships. National championships are prohibited before age 13. Rather than a focus on producing elite athletes, the country's motto is “Joy of sport for all,” according to the Times.
"Violate the rules, and a federation or club risks losing access to government grants, generated from proceeds of sports betting and other gambling to help build facilities and fund programming," Farrey wrote.
In contrast, a poll from the national Alliance for Youth Sports found around 70 percent of kids in the U.S. stop playing organized sports by age 13 because "it's just not fun anymore." The President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports reports that the percentage of overweight American youth between 6 and 19 has tripled since 1980.
A system that makes sports accessible for all and prevents early burnout is working for Norway, according to sports officials and athletes there. With a population of just 5.3 million, Norway won more medals at last year's Pyeongchang Olympics than any country in the history of the Winter Games. The United States, on the other hand, with a population of more than 300 million, finished fourth with 23 medals compared to Norway's 39.
Others are skeptical that Norway's approach to youth sports really makes a difference. Warner Todd Huston wrote an article for Breitbart saying Norway's success at winter sports has more to do with the fact the country is really cold than its universal health care system or government-subsidized sports programs. "Norwegians are born with skis on their feet" is a common saying.
"For all their friendliness, the Norwegians and their health care system produced the whopping total of four medals in the 2016 Summer Games, all bronze. Meanwhile, the unfriendly, uninsured, score-keeping American squad, produced 121 medals."
Regardless, there may be something American coaches and parents can learn from Norway about how to avoid putting unnecessary pressure on young kids to perform well in athletics.
“A huge amount of Norwegian kids are doing sports, so we have a very broad recruiting base, and our top sports programs and our kids are very closely connected in our system,” Tore Øvrebø, the Norwegian Olympic Committee’s director of elite sports told USA Today in 2018.
“They can compete, but we don’t make like No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 before they’re in their 13th year. We think it’s better to be a child in this way because then they can concentrate on having fun and be with their friends and develop," he said. "We think the biggest motivation for the kids to do sports is that they do it with their friends and they have fun while they’re doing it and we want to keep that feeling throughout their whole career."
Youth athletics is a $15.3 billion industry in the United States, according to WinterGreen Research. The youth sports economy, which includes everything from equipment to private coaching, has grown by 55 percent since 2010, WinterGreen officials told Time magazine.
TD Ameritrade's 2019 survey of 1,000 families found that more than half say they spend more than they can afford on youth sports. Sixty-four percent of parents said they are stressed about paying for youth sports, and 62 percent have gone into debt to pay for them. Forty-six percent spend more than $1,000 annually on a sport their kid plays, and 27 percent spend more than $2,000.
But the more parents spend, the more likely they are to believe it will pay off.
Eighty-one percent think what they spend on their kids' activities, sports or otherwise, may lead to future income for their children, including college scholarships, according to a survey conducted at the beginning of April by LendingTree. The more parents spent, the more likely they were to believe this, the survey showed.
"I know anecdotally from my time as a sports parent and a youth coach that it's hard for parents to let go when they have put a lot of money into an activity only to find their child is not going to go pro, or worse yet, is just no longer interested it," Bob Cook wrote in an article for Forbes.
"My son is two games into his spring season, and we haven’t had a single nibble from a college coach," Jason Gay wrote in a satirical article for the Wall Street Journal. "I should mention my son is 6 years old, and he just started playing Pee Wee baseball. But still, college coaches: Make us an offer! Even a half scholarship will do. Wisconsin: Where are you? I’m giving my son two more weeks to get a scholarship offer before I start photoshopping his head atop the bodies of high-school rowers. Is this illegal? Please let me know."
Norway mobilizes its high taxes and oil and gambling revenue to fund public programs. College and health care are free for everyone, and as a result, kids are less concerned with obtaining athletic scholarships or pursuing sports as a way to make it out of neighborhoods that lack economic opportunities, according to the Times. While higher taxes to fund public sports programs and provide free college may be met with criticism in the U.S., a general effort to make sports accessible could be beneficial.
Dr. Travis Dorsch, assistant professor at Utah State University and founding director of the Families in Sport Lab, told Fox & Friends that the high cost of youth sports in the U.S. is a financial burden and excludes low-income youth.
“I think what we’re seeing is this trickle down professionalization into youth sport. And that’s really pressing a lot of families out,” Dorsch said on Friday.
“What are our goals for our kids in youth sport? When we as researchers ask parents and children that question, they give us a lot of answers. Not a lot of those answers have to do with winning, getting trophies, getting scholarships,” Dorsch said. “We need to re-evaluate and maybe just look in the mirror and figure out why we are having our children participate in this context at all?”
Children between the ages of 5 and 14 account for nearly 40 percent of all sports-related injuries treated in U.S. hospitals, according to the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine. And since 2000, there has been a five-fold increase in the number of serious shoulder and elbow injuries among youth baseball and softball players.
James Andrews, an orthopedic surgeon based in Alabama, has witnessed this dramatic spike first hand.
“Coaches start recruiting kids that they think can be successful in their particular sport in the second and third grade,” Andrews told the Decatur Daily. “Parents are told where if you don’t specialize now and don’t let him play in the elite — whatever they are coaching — they won’t get the best competition and he’ll drop out and won’t be the best he can be. And they wind up burning out before they are 13 or 14 years old.”
“Then they are sitting on the couch, on the computer or playing video games or they are out on the street,” he said.
A survey Andrews conducted of high school athletes on which he performed Tommy John surgery, a surgical procedure that involves using a healthy tendon to repair a torn ligament in the arm, revealed most had only taken a one week break from throwing during the year.
Anders Mol, a 21-year-old from a remote town in western Norway, was named the international volleyball federation’s Most Outstanding Player for 2018. Mol told The New York Times he was bothered as a child by having to wait to compete nationally among with other young players. However, the delay increased his passion for beach volleyball and forced him to play other sports that improved his overall athleticism — now a defining quality of his game, according to the Times.
“I understand why we do this,” Mol said of the Children’s Rights in Sport framework. “It’s good.”
The Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee recommends children ages 6 to 17 get at least one hour of physical activity each day, and research indicates doing so can improve mental health outcomes.
A study from Washington University in St. Louis published in the journal Biological Psychiatry found that boy and girl athletes had larger hippocampal volumes in the brain, a factor which affects memory and response to stress. The findings linked organized sports participation to less depression in boys ages 9 to 11. For girls, sports involvement was linked to higher hippocampal volume but not lower depression.
“There might be something about the combination of exercise and the social support or structure that comes from being on a team that can be useful at preventing or treating depression in young people,” the study's lead author, Lisa Gorham, said in a release published by Reading Eagle.
But for elite athletes, the effect of sports on mental health could be opposite.
A 2011 study found 21.4 percent of elite athletes between 18 and 25 reported clinical symptoms of depression, compared to 29.2 percent of the general public of the same age.
"I think parents need to keep things realistic about the growth of their child in their sport, and not compare their kids to other athletes on that team," Dr. Chris Carr, sports psychologist at St. Vincent Health in Indiana told NBC's WTHR Channel 13. "A 10-year-old that's really good at soccer at 10 may not be as skillful when they're 12 and 13. And that kid who is really struggling at 10 may be one of the best kids in high school."
"For parents, there's an unrealistic expectation that whatever money I put into my kid's youth sport is going to come out in a scholarship," said Carr, who has treated athletes as young as 11 for symptoms of serious anxiety because of the pressure parents and coaches put on them to perform at the highest level in their sport. "That's just not a very healthy investment idea."
Carr told WTHR that when parents exhibit this mindset, kids are more likely start feeling like they must be successful in their sport, which takes away from the genuine enjoyment of playing.22 comments on this story
“We like to win and lose, but it shouldn’t follow you and define you as an individual when you are a kid,” Øvrebø from Norway told the Aspen Institute. “We like it to be (about) play and having fun. They should learn social skills. Learn to take instructions, and think by themselves. Learn to know what the rules are. Learn why we are doing these things together. So there is a value system going through the (activity) that is actually about developing people. That’s the main goal of sport, to develop people.”