It was about four years ago and my oldest was 8 with two rug rats coming up behind her. I had it! The perfect title for the most important newspaper article to hit a parenting column in the modern era. It would be called … wait for it … “Push back.”
I didn’t even know what the content would be, but I had the problem defined in my head and the solution was in the title. Yup! Just hand over my Pulitzer Prize now, thank you.
“Push Back” as it so eloquently is titled, is the answer to the greatest challenge since the wheel. Push back on the insanity of kids and sports.
Not the backyard soccer or driveway basketball. I am talking about the multi-billion dollar industry of professional sport dreams breaking into our homes. In fact, there is no breaking and entry. This has been such an evolutionary phenomena that even the Zebra Mussels pale in the extraordinary speed to latch on to our last bits of sanity and sacredness of a couple hours of family time each week. (You may have to Google the invasive species of the Lake Michigan Zebra Mussels.)
Family, personal time has been invaded
What is this overly confident columnist referring to? Sports dominating parents’ lives!
But Jeff, our kids love sports. We are a sports family. We like seeing our kids compete and develop. Exactly! This is precisely what I am getting at. We love it and we dread it. Sport schedules have taken over our lives. Family time and personal time has been invaded. We must learn to confront it.
I missed church this past weekend because of a crazy sports schedule for my kids. No, I am not going to hell, but I sure feel more distant from God’s will for us to keep practicing faith and family first. And I am surrounded by tons of sleepy-eyed parents almost every Sunday morning throughout the year’s sporting events.
I love sports. But I love my faith even more. My faith is the Gatorade for life. Sports are more like a sprint in life and my faith (and that of my children) is meant to be a marathon. Everyone’s training during this life, for the next one, is filled with personal goals just like training for a traditional marathon.
Not everyone can train the same way but they all do seem to rejoice in a similar fashion upon crossing that finish line.
I love films that get us cheering in our seats for the underdog when up against great odds to overcome and win. The problem is, these underdogs are our children. They are only following our direction.
They see the Gatorade commercials and Nike ads telling them to push beyond limits. They have practice and games two, three, four times a week starting at 7 years old.
They travel from zip code to zip code just to compete against some new team as if competition doesn’t exist in the community. They listen to the parents shout at their teammate’s kid from the stands.
They don’t want to be that kid and let us down, so they dig deeper. They sit around between games and eat hot dogs and walking tacos during tournaments that often run dawn to dusk.
They go where they are told for summer sports camps if we want them to keep up with the Jones’ kid in order to get playing time next season. They put on wool hats to play soccer into later, cold months, and trade outdoor cleats for indoor turf shoes. The list of how our children respond to the increasing demands put in front of them goes on.
Here’s the thing. My house has been overrun with invasive levels of sports. Somewhere along the journey, the clutches of the modern youth sports phenomena grabbed hold of my life and that of my children’s, without us ever seeing it coming.
Here are my pointed concerns as a simple sports dad with an astonishing moment of clarity
• Burn Out. Last year my 7-year-old already mentally burned out from club soccer. What could have been a nice sport that suited him burned him out with all the practices and games eating up his time to just be a child.
• Injuries. The numbers are astounding. Young athletes are beginning their competitive sports careers as early as age 7. Some participate in organized sports as early as age 5. With an estimated 25 million school-based sports, and another 20 million organized community-based youth programs in the United States, the opportunity for injury is a big reality.
Sports injuries are the second leading cause of emergency room visits for children and adolescents, and the second leading cause of injuries in school. Approximately 3 million youth visit emergency rooms for sports-related injuries.
Another 5 million youth are seen by their primary care physician or a sports medicine clinic for injuries. These numbers leave out the injuries not seen by a physician.
What does this all mean?
Physical activity is important for growth in children on many levels. However, when the activity level becomes too intense or too excessive in a short time period, tissue can breakdown and injury can occur. These overuse injuries were mostly seen in adult athletes, but are now being seen in our children.
The single biggest factor contributing to the dramatic increase in overuse injuries in young athletes is the focus on more intense, repetitive and specialized training at much younger ages.
Overuse injuries such as stress fractures, tendinitis, bursitis, apophysitis and osteochondral injuries of the joint surface were rarely seen when children spent more time engaging in free play. Free play is schoolyard and backyard games.
• Time. The most precious of all is our time. Can we survive with an ankle sprain? Yes. Can our children survive if they fall out of love with the sport because it simply burned them out? Yes. But, can any of us replace that most precious of all, the time of childhood when there are so many opportunities to soak in all the activities outside of sports? Not with my kids’ sports schedule most of the year.
Full disclosure. Those who know my family know I have one child who plays four sports, two of which are with club teams. The Zebra Mussels have taken over my ship. They practice and play and travel a lot. And when they play, it’s not one game, it can dominate our weekend.
Now throw in the other sports schedules for child #two or #three – even more balls in the air. The concept of “push back” was born in my heart, but my heart breaks as pushing back becomes the sad clown who fails at juggling.
I was going to be that dad, an ex-athlete myself, who would push back against this invasive culture that has grasped ahold of my children, my schedule, and our precious family time. Driving to, and watching games, is not quality time.
The statistics say your kid’s sport will not pay their cell phone and credit card bills for the better part of 60 years following high school. Once our children start moving around the home and communicating with us, we have them for about 10 years (in our home on a daily basis). Less, if you factor in when they learn how to Snapchat, Instagram, start dating and drive.
My humble words of encouragement to those who fall into this ever-increasing category: be smarter than the sport. Know when to say when. Push back on the coaches. They are not prophets. They are simple mentors of OUR children.
When the coach gets bigger than the sport, and the sport bigger than the family’s priorities, something has to give. Tonight I am pulling my son from practice to watch his sister’s game. I contacted the coach and pleasantly, I was surprised at his response. “Family comes first!” he said. There is hope.
Here is a possible approach to confronting youth sports in the modern era. Take a break from year round sports or at least teach your kids to not train like LeBron James or Lionel Messi.
Don’t pass up an opportunity to take a family vacation, because the coach decided to have practice over spring break (like mine did). Don’t pass up taking off a night for a family dinner, homework, or a Saturday for a birthday celebration.
Don’t pass up going to church and breakfast as a family because you are juggling multiple games on a weekend.
Vince Lombardi once said, “Faith, family, football, in that order!” Before you know it, time will have passed and you will be seeing a chiropractor for all those years driving kids around to practice, games and sitting in bleachers.
By the way, your kids will push back!
(Jeff is a motivational speaker and author of the newly released book, “The Pivotal Life: A Compass for Discovering Purpose, Passion & Perspective.” He is a single father of three children who attend Lumen Christi Catholic School in Mequon.)