Monday, October 19, 2009

Why Johnny Hates Sports

Years ago when I was living in Chicago in the late 1990s, the big news at the start of the school year was that Chicago Bears legend Walter Payton's son - who was an All-American soccer player as a junior - had surprised the sports community by going out for football his senior year at Barrington high school. He not only went out, but won the job of starting quarterback, no doubt due to his excellent athletic ability. Yet, the question remained as to why he quit soccer, a sport he'd played all his life and would assuredly have been playing in college, and even professionally. The reality, which he revealed in a press conference, was that he was "burned out." In fact, if my memory serves me correctly, he literally said he come to "hate soccer."  The rise of club soccer had led to such an overload in time committment, that he came to hate the sport he loved. This is a phenomenon well documented in the book Why Johnny Hates Sport by Fred Engh.

While I didn't know this phenomenon all too well when I first read Engh's book, I was somewhat familiar with the intense competition and the growing force of club sports in youth culture.  Now, after working in coaching in high schools and raising two kids who are reaching the competitive levels, I am on board with Engh's criticism and concerns.  As an advocate for restraint and common sense in youth athletics, Engh documents the anxiety kids are facing as they are asked to choose a sport and specialize by as early as sixth grade.  As club sports expand all seasons into year round, a thirteen--year-old is threatened with losing his spot on one team because another sport has a tournament out of state during the tryouts for the first sport and .... ugh!  It just gets that crazy.  And Engh argues for a return to the good-natured fun of youth sports that focuses on the fundamental skills of the game, as well as the equally important aspects of teamwork, good sportsmanship, discipline, and fair play.  Engh's book is filled with anecdotes and insights about the foundations of youth sports and the problems of "Coaches Gone Wild."  In addition to this book, Engh is also affiliated with the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS), where he serves as president and spokesman.

Additionally, the issue has a new voice in Denver-area high school student Scott Martin who recently published a piece of commentary in the Denver Post, where he revealed "Why I Can't Stand Youth Sports Anymore." It is an honest and sincere plea for some sanity in the world of youth sports, and a very well written argument at that. Scott begins by sharing the tragic stories of high school students who were "practiced to death," and then offers detailed commentary on the culture that has led to such situations. He also comments about his own struggles with the culture and laments the fact that parents at pee-wee sports competitions have to be urged, "Relax, it's just a game."

I must admit, I don't hold out hope for change in this arena, as the sound of youth coaches screaming at children makes me cringe every time I hear it. The stories of long weekends and short summers traveling around with club teams make it even worse. Certainly, any one has the opportunity to opt out of these "optional activities." But that doesn't make it any easier, especially for kids who just want to play for their school. Perhaps with future leaders like Scott, generations down the road will figure out the madness and stop killing "the love of the game."

Perhaps, hope can be found in the direction coaching takes, as coaches would seem to be the best hope for a change in the culture, as noted in this New York Times profile.  If more schools and athletic organizations would commit to the goals of the Positive Coaching Alliance, the focus and direction of our sports-obsessed youth could be redirected in a way that wouldn't lead to contempt and regret over that activity which once inspired joy and passion.  The Positive Coaching Alliance is an organization of coaches and leaders in youth sports who recognize the imperative of a positive and uplifting message on the athletic fields.

Sports are a wonderful part of our lives and culture.  The lessons learned on the athletic field as members of a team can be integral parts of character education, and we should take steps to guarantee that benefit.  There should never be a reason Why Johnny Hates Sports.

Picnic Time Sports Chair

1 comment:

Daughter of Eve said...

My brothers play soccer with the YMCA, and it is really awesome. The point isn't to win, win, win. It's to learn the game and have fun. They don't even keep track of goals and who wins/loses. The players do ( ;) ), but not the coaches. They are encouraging and helpful, and they make it clear that the point is to learn to play well. Actually, our coach is our pastor, so that's really fun. ;) But all the coaches are like that.

~Queen Lucy~