10 Ways to Fix Youth Sports

Want to do something about youth sports craziness? Start here.

I see a lot of hand-wringing about the problems with youth sports, but not a lot of hands-on help for overcoming them. To fix youth sports, reasonable parents need to speak up! Remember that kids know what they want to get from playing sports, and it's not trophies, treats, or even wins. They want to have fun, learn new things, and be good sports. So let's help them do that.

Stay positive.

baseball player and coach
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Avoid criticizing your kids during and after a practice or event. Your child needs your love and support; constructive criticism should come from his coach. If it worked for Don Mattingly, it should work for your kid! Repeat to yourself as needed: "It's not about me."

Encourage your child to play multiple sports.

Sports leagues and schools sometimes make this tough, wanting your child to pick only one sport and devote all her time to it. Resist this, say by skipping the summer ice hockey league in favor of baseball (or time for swim lessons or pick-up basketball). Professional coaches will tell you that the best athletes are well-rounded ones.

Ask for noncompetitive play.

Not every kid is into competition. Ask your school's parent-teacher organization, your city parks department, or your area's sports leagues to create options for just-for-fun, inclusive play. Our family has had good experiences with NFL flag football organized through our YMCA. There's no scoring and equal play time for everyone.

Let kids quit.

Remember, it's not about you. If your child says he wants to quit a sport, hear him out. Sometimes a break, or a switch to a different sport or program, is the best course of action.

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Focus on fun, fitness, and learning.

While you don't want to undermine your child's coach, you do want to make sure that your kid understands what you value about youth sports. Her priorities should be to learn new things, be physically active, and have fun. If she's in a situation where this isn't happening, talk to the coach—or make a change.

Guard against over-training.

Even if your kid absolutely loves his sport, spending too much time on it or specializing in it too early is risky. It can lead to injuries and burnout. Make sure he gets at least one rest day a week, and one to three months off his primary sport every year (cumulatively). Save specialization in one sport until he is at least 11 or 12 years old.

Forget scholarships.

If you're spending a ton of money on coaching, equipment, and camps, all in the name of snagging a sports scholarship, stop. You'll get a much better return on investment by funneling those funds into a college savings account. That doesn't mean you shouldn't spend any money on sports (it's pretty much impossible not to!). But do it because of how they're benefiting your child now, not because of potential future financial rewards.

Prioritize family time.

It's very easy to let sports take over your family's free time, especially if you have more than one child. Look for ways to carve out and protect family time, such as shared meals or weekend events. My son had two ice hockey teammates who never played on Sundays—ever. Their parents set this expectation with the coaches and league at the beginning of the season and that was that. (It helped that they're talented players who train hard both at practices and at home.)

Keep competition healthy.

Some kids are naturally more competitive than others. Watch for these signs of unhealthy competitiveness in your child. If they're cropping up, it's time to re-emphasize the values of sportsmanship and competing to excel.

Confront the crazy parents.

I admit, this is a tough one. But I don't mean going nose-to-nose with a parent who's screaming profanities from the sidelines. (That could actually be dangerous.) I mean resisting the one-upsmanship that so often happens in groups of parents. I mean reminding these parents that your child plays sports for fun and doesn't need to practice 40 hours a week. I mean volunteering for the youth sports league so you can help set policy, like a code of conduct for players and parents. Be the voice of reason, and you'll find others who will back you up.

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