By Alex Norman
Let me start this article by saying that there are a lot of great things about youth sports.
It gives kids an opportunity to get some exercise. It teaches them to work with others. And playing sports is all sorts of fun.
The only thing wrong with youth sports is what adults are doing to it.
Over the past year my kids have played in a local youth sports league. This is my first experience with youth sports since I played soccer as a kid, so I didn’t know what to expect. What I learned is that the same “win at all costs” mentality that you see in college and professional athletics has made its way to the levels of sports in which the participants haven’t even reached double digits in age.
It isn’t important that I tell you which league, which age group or even which sport I have first-hand knowledge about, because from conversations with parents across Knoxville and friends I have around the country, I now know that this is happening everywhere.
So here are the basics.
Parents are spending hundreds of dollars so that their kids can play a game. Long gone are the days of kids meeting at the local field, playing until the street lights come on, and then coming home for a nutritious dinner that their Mom spent all day cooking. And that of course is fine. Except for the dinner part… more home cooked meals would be great.
But now it isn’t as simple as knowing you have 100 kids that want to play, so just put all their names in a hat and split teams evenly. Now, you have teams that are allowed to “protect” players… and all teams have to “draft” players.
So here is what happens. The top 3-4 teams in the league from the previous season know who the best players are and snatch them up before any other teams can. That means they make sure the top 16-20 players in the league go to them, thus ensuring victories before games are even played.
In addition, because you have to draft players, these coaches can instruct the other really good players they’ve learned about to not even attend an open tryout, so that when it is time to draft, the other teams had no way to learn about their talents.
This leads to having 3-4 teams stacked with mostly experienced players and the other teams left with mostly inexperienced players.
There was one game I saw that every player on one team whose smallest player was still taller than the tallest player on the other team. And this isn’t a rare occurrence.
When I asked league officials about why certain teams are allowed to stack their rosters, I was told this was allowed “for consistency,” and that the following year teams would be more even as the inexperienced players gain some playing time.
The error in this logic is that if in 2015 you get a team with no experience going against a team with three years of experience, in that next year the team with one year experience is now going up against a team with 4 years of experience. So no, it does not even out.
“Playing against better competition will make you better!” This is the battle cry from the folks that have the built in advantage. Ask if they’d like to switch places.
As if watching kids compete on a slanted playing field isn’t enough, the way that coaches act on a consistent basis is troubling.
I watch as coaches only give encouragement to kids that are getting base hits or scoring goals or making catches. Players that don’t end up heading back to the dugout or sideline without as much as a “good try.”
I also see parents screaming at the top of their lungs while a little kid sits under a short pop fly. Look, this is going to be tough to read… Jenny and Jimmy are not going to play professionally. They just aren’t. So quit treating every athletic activity like the future of mankind depends on the result.
We are only young once. Games should be just that… games.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t keep score and that we should give everyone a trophy. Competition is healthy and will help these kids down the line in whatever they pursue.
But shouldn’t we try to make sure the playing field is level, so that our kids get an equal opportunity to succeed and learn based on their own talents and not the conspiratorial and overzealous efforts of adults?
Sometimes… it is the adults that have to grow up.