Competitive sports and college admissions often get intertwined, as if the only reason for the former is the latter. But aren’t we confusing two issues? If there were no college recruitment would there be no competitive sport? And, are there advantages to kids and teens to competing athletically at a very high level, regardless of collegiate outcome?
The reality is that most kids, even those involved in an intensive athletic experiences, will not be recruited to college. Getting recruited to play sports in college is the dream of many athletes, but the facts surrounding this process can be bleak. There are over seven million high school athletes and more the three million kids playing competitive soccer. Only around 5% of high school athletes will compete in the NCAA. And, it is a mere 1 percent of the seven million who will find themselves on a D1 team with scholarship money.
So if you are a parent whose kid has been playing hockey/lacrosse/soccer/football/basketball or you name it, for 10 years and they did not get a place in college, or if you are a parent staring down the barrel of those 10 intensive years, the question is are the time, money and effort you and your family put into sports wasted?
The backlash against recruitment and the intensive sports that lead high schoolers, and even middle schoolers, to commit to colleges, muddies the waters. Here I want to argue that undertaking athletics at a high level, with a major commitment of time (e.g four or more days a week), is a good thing for some kids regardless of the college outcome. The lack of college place, I would argue, in no way detracts from the benefits of the sporting experience and the two should be viewed separately.
Competitive sports are criticized for putting adult pressure on children. Intensive athletic commitments are viewed as antithetical to quality family time and to experiencing a wide range of interests and activities. Highly competitive sports are seen as the bain of the well-rounded athlete and the well-rounded kid.
There no question that such an athletic experience is not for everyone, but for some kids an intensive sporting schedule is transformative.
1. Creates competitive kid capital
According to sociologist Hilary Levy Friedman, author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, competitive activities, like sports, teaches five important life lessons, including:
(1) internalizing the importance of winning, (2) bouncing back from a loss to win in the future, (3) learning how to perform within time limits, (4) learning how to succeed in stressful situations, and (5) being able to perform under the gaze of others.
2. Learning to do something as well as you can
Recreational sports are great, but they are just that, recreational. When a teen tries their best at an activity over an extended time, they learn the rewards of repetition, practice, persistence, self motivation and the rewards of pushing yourself to do better. Are there other ways to learn these things? Yes, of course, the violin will teach kids the exact same things, but for some, sports is best vehicle for learning these invaluable lessons.
3. It is nice for someone else to do the nagging
If your student is speaking to college recruiters, whether or not it will actually result in an offer, the coaches will be saying the same words to them over and over: grades, grades, grades. And isn’t it nice for your kid to hear that from someone else once in a while?
4. Success comes from sacrifice
Teens and deferred gratification do not naturally go together. But in athletics, as in academics and other pursuits, the lessons of foregoing fun for endeavor, skipping the party because there is an early morning practice, is a lesson for life. Recreational sports, with the reduced commitment, cannot teach this lesson.
5. A great place to fail
Parents seem to be looking for places for their kids to fail. Some have argued that academics is a good learning ground for failure, but I am not sure that I agree. Sports provide the perfect place for failure because they contain all of the right elements. An athlete can try their hardest, practice and give of their best and still not find success. Sometimes it is because an opponent is simply better, sometimes it is bad luck or poor conditions. For years I have listened to parents shout from the sideline, “You’ve got to want it!” If there is one thing that sports teaches us it is that wanting it, preparing for it, and doing everything right, might still not be enough to be victorious, but it is enough to succeed.
6. Achieve a common goal
Team sports have the benefits of working with other to achieve a common goal (and by goal I mean improving, not necessarily winning.) Kids can learn these same lessons producing a play or playing in an orchestra, but if that activity is transient, the experience of evolving and improving with a group of peers is lost. The value of a group activity cannot be overstated. Few professions in life involve singular activity; coalescing around a common goal is a skill that cannot be learned too young.
7. Weekends spent as a family are lost, but one-on-one time found
One of the most resounding criticisms of kid’s sports is the sacrifice of the family weekend. Practices, games and tournaments eat up time, sending family members scurrying in various directions. Weekends are given over to sports. For my family, this meant road trips (single best time to talk to teens,) train trips and flights, as well as winding down at hotel rooms. For a family of three kids, busy like most families, these were invaluable moments of quiet time between parent and child.
8. Broadening your world
Elite sports teams often draw from a much broader geographic area than local schools. Kids spend considerable time with teammates from different towns, backgrounds and, if it is soccer, often different nationalities. The travel involved means that teams may compete far from home and this can be an enriching experience as well. My kids have played in Texas and Alabama, in Virginia and North Carolina. Their teammates come from an area 100 miles across, this broadened their world on so many dimensions.
9. Well rounded is not for everyone
My kids were not as multifaceted as other kids, they played no instruments and never did scouts or, for two of them, art. Well rounded is great for some kids and not for others.
10. No awards for showing up
In highly competitive teams, there are no awards for metaphorically showing up. Coaches are demanding, critical and supportive. Learning to take critique from a coach, and get better rather than angry, is an important skill. On the playing field, kids learn that others are better than they are and how hard work plays into the equation. When my kids were small they played in leagues where there was equal playing time and every team member was given the same opportunities. This is very much as it should be. But if we want the world to be a meritocracy, and to teach them that effort will be rewarded, we have to begin somewhere.
Kids drop sport because they are no longer interested or it is no longer fun. But is fun the barometer of everything? Kids don’t love practice but they love the games. They don’t love the weight lifting but love that they are getting stronger and faster. They hate sprints, but love being fast. And while the drive to improve needs to be intrinsic, emanating from the kids themselves, parents should look upon the commitment to competitive sports as a breeding ground for life lessons, not just a pass to college.