Are Kids Playing Sports Having Fun Yet?


There are many wonderful things about youth sports. Parental involvement is often not one of them.

In a roundtable discussion after his new HBO documentary, Trophy Kids, producer Peter Berg, 51, talks about his own childhood playing unorganized football on playgrounds. Just kids, no adults.

The Berg documentary, along with a story in the New York Times about obsessive basketball mothers in Kentucky, illustrate everything that’s wrong with organized sports.


I grew  up in the South End playing every sport, every season, in the playground across the street at St. Thomas More, or in the alley behind my house. Or anywhere there was an open field. There were always a dozen or so of us, scrambling to find a ball, and gloves and bats. We chose up sides, and played for hours and hours and hours, usually until my Mom yelled out the back door that it was time to come in.

There were no helmets, of course, or any other safety equipment. We did the kind of things that would make modern parents shudder, like climbing on the roof of a 3-story building to fetch a baseball, or sneaking into a gym through an unlocked window to shoot hoops. We learned the rules, and sportsmanship, on the field. When somebody skinned a knee, they shook it off, rubbed it with dirt, and kept playing.

I know we can’t go back to giving our kids that kind of childhood sports experience. If kids are playing a sport today, almost all the games they play are in uniforms in organized leagues. That, in itself, is not a bad thing.

The point is that parents, whether living their lives through their kids’ activities, or simply over-involving themselves in kids’ games and practices, often do more harm than good. When pushed too hard, a lot of kids quit their sport. Many burn out at 13.

Or they practice obsessively, only to discover that their talent will only take them so far. They end up choosing a college based not an academics or location or cost, but on being able to continue playing a sport.

Berg mentions the controversial premise of Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” in which Gladwell presents evidence that superior athletes practice 10,000 hours. While there’s some truth in that for the very successful, Berg makes the point it gave thousands of parents incentive to drive kids to practice constantly.

In Trophy Kids, four examples showcase parents who demean their kids, who embarrass them at games, who drive their kids away from the parent and the sport, all in a quest to earn a college scholarship. It’s a small sampling, but none resulted in phenomenally successful athletes. One earned a Div. II scholarship, another moved away from his critical father.

This woman profiled in the New York Times shows up at her son’s high school basketball games with a Fathead poster of her son’s head, screams at the referees relentlessly and was once thrown out of a gym for her behavior. Another parent has switched her son’s high school three times in an obsessive quest for playing time.

And a TV producer believes that’s the formula for a successful reality series. Let’s hope our culture doesn’t embrace such a thing.

Here’s a fact many choose to ignore — college sports is no picnic. Keeping a college athletic scholarship is like a job, one that is often no bargain on a per-hour basis. That NCAA ad rings true — nearly every NCAA collegiate athlete is going pro in something other than sports. On a per hour earning basis, it’s almost better to deliver pizzas.

By the time I went to college, I wasn’t interested in playing any more football, though several schools offered me an academic/athletic aid package. My son Josh, despite getting good grades and playing regularly for one of the state’s top football teams, showed zero interest in playing beyond high school.

Josh was a good high school athlete. When he was in youth sports in Jeffersontown, there was pressure to buy private personal coaching lessons. It seems everyone in the Little League was doing it, but I resisted. I didn’t want to spend the money, but I also didn’t see the benefit. Today, we’re both glad I made that decision.

And while I went to an occasional practice and almost never missed a game, I never yelled at referees, harassed a coach for not giving him enough playing time, or made a spectacle of myself in the stands. I just didn’t want to embarrass my son, and I wanted to teach him that if he was going to be successful, he’d have to earn it.

Of course, I know parents who spend their weekends traveling with their kids to various games and camps. They make sacrifices to be on travel teams in soccer, baseball, volleyball or to participate in golf, tennis or swimming championships. It becomes a lifestyle, and for many it’s a rewarding experience for both parent and child.

Many parents can’t draw the line between healthy participation in sports and a obsessive quest to be the best.

Josh and I watched the HBO documentary together, shaking our heads as we saw a basketball Dad yelling at referees, reminding us of parents we knew from his playing days.  The show highlights parents in football, basketball, tennis and golf who have basically devoted their lives to seeing their kids succeed in sports.

The parents profiled in the New York Times discuss what they’ve given up for the sport — vacations, attention for siblings, independence to schedule anything other than the activities of one sport.

Is any of this fun for the participants?

That’s the question that came up in the HBO discussion that aired after Trophy Kids — does anyone in these sports look like they’re having fun? The panel’s answer was no. It’s a question parents, and kids, should be asking every day.