I saw a sign recently in a local park that was advertising a soccer league for three-year olds. I had to do a double take, because surely there doesn’t exist an organized soccer league for toddlers, the majority of whom are likely still pooping in their own pants. But I was wrong, because it was for three-year olds, and as entertaining as it would be to watch almost babies cluelessly stumble across a field trying to make contact with a large ball, it’s also the reason why organized sporting leagues for children, ‘tweens, and teens have gotten a little out of control.
Add to that is the fact these ultra competitive sports leagues beginning in toddlerhood are producing kid athletes who are prematurely specializing in one particular sport (and one sport only), a condition that has sports psychologists and pediatricians concerned on several mental and physical levels.
But perhaps the most worrisome result of starting soccer (or any sport for that matter) at age three, and then going full-blown die-hard in that sport for the following 15 years, is that we’re turning high school sports into something completely different than it was ever meant to be. It’s as if instead of school sports teams being there to provide an outlet for fun (amongst a host of other things) they’re now just an extended arm of all the elite traveling sports leagues of their local communities.
What that means is the teams have become so, well-GOOD, that your average high schooler who maybe wants to try to play that sport has little to no chance of even making the team. And it’s happening at even the smallest of schools, both public and private. In years past all students were encouraged to try to play at least one sport (even one they’d never played before, and where try outs where optional), because that is what high school athletics is supposed to be all about, right? When is there another time in your life where you can wake up and decide you want to play on a basketball team – so you show up to practice, someone teaches you the game, and you get to play?
Things have gotten so insane in high school sports, that some schools are now recruiting students while they’re still in middle school, and it’s not uncommon for high-profile athletes to choose a high school based solely on their athletic program and its success at one particular sport, with little concern for the academic programs the school has. What makes that even nuttier is less than 3% of male and female high school athletes will go on to play their chosen sport in college at all Division I, yet we’re continuing to support and push them into that type of extreme athletic culture and level of elitism in sports. And we’re doing it at younger and younger ages – like THREE.
I’ve been extremely lucky to be able to send my kids to a high school where all are welcome to play sports, and very few are instantly cut from a team (or not allowed to play at all) because of lack of skill or experience. That fact alone was a vital part of our decision to send our sons there, because we wanted them to have the chance to try a new sport without fear of being surrounded by semi-pros, or not given a chance at all because they haven’t been playing it since age three.
It does not however, mean I am encouraging a “everybody gets a trophy” mentality in high school sports, and trust me, they’ve gotten beat up pretty badly by other elite high schools. But they were playing a sport and having fun while doing it, as well as learning about the behavior and selflessness required to be on a team, and the discipline it takes to balance academics and extra curricular activities. It’s actually still possible for high schoolers to be motivated, competitive, and excited about playing sports even if they don’t play it 365 days a year, and with the current amount of academic rigor they face daily, our teens desperately need an outlet like high school sports to help reduce stress, not add to it.
Perhaps a solution could be for high schools to offer “club” sports teams for those kids less skilled, but whom still desire to play sports for fun. In the same way colleges offer coed intramural sports as an opportunity for exercise and camaraderie, high schools should attempt to foster both a recreational type sports league, and a competitive one as well, if the want is there. If we don’t, I fear high school athletics will just eventually be a priming factory for collegiate athletes only, leaving a whole host of deserving players left sitting in the bleachers.