Kids’ sports should put fun first

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By Rob Witwer

One of the best things about having four boys is the opportunity to get involved in youth sports, both as a parent and coach. Team sports was a big part of my life growing up, so it’s wonderful to see my own kids becoming part of something bigger than themselves. I can only hope that the lessons they learn stick with them as they stuck with me.
If you have kids under the age of 18, what I’m about to say won’t come as a surprise to you. There is no question that this country’s commitment to youth sports is as strong as it ever was, perhaps stronger. In fact, when measured against my own experience as an athlete in high school and college, there’s really no comparison.
In 2011, there’s a very short window for kids to play more than one sport, and in many cases it closes before the age of 10. Whereas back in the 1980s it was possible for kids to play three sports right up through high school, now they’re expected to specialize at a fairly young age. With many sports there is no “season” — the whole year is the season, with activities moving indoors and outdoors as the weather dictates. Teams travel not just around the metro area, but around the country for tournaments. The time commitment is substantial.
On the one hand, it’s good to see kids learning to make the depth of commitment needed to master a skill. On the other, I wonder if specialization so early is a good thing. If a kid wants to participate in some sports competitively, he or she has to make that decision at a very young age. The system has evolved to a point that doors are closing earlier and earlier in kids’ lives. Kids who are barely older than toddlers are being rated, sorted and “cut” by the adults who run the programs.
The commitment isn’t just limited to time and focus. The financial demands of youth sports are greater than ever. All of that equipment, ice time, and gear cost money. I remember when our varsity lacrosse jerseys at Mullen were castoff practice jerseys from the football team. We practiced in the parking lot in the early spring, and other than game gear and practice jerseys, we had no team “gear” we wore to games. When I got to college, we had better uniforms, but not much more. That was a Division III lacrosse program in Massachusetts.
These days, it’s not unusual to see 8-year-old teams decked out in matching sweat suits (numbers and names stitched on the back) carrying matching bags. Other than the differences in size, age and skill level, youth teams look like professional athletes as they travel to elite tournaments far from home.
Whether or not all of these changes are good depends on your perspective. Thirty years ago, Evergreen’s baseball diamonds and soccer fields were always filled with kids playing pickup games for fun, with no adults to be seen anywhere. I can’t remember the last time I saw a field being used that way. If kids are playing on a field now, it’s part of an organized team activity, with coaches and parents looking on.
For my part, I hope kids’ sports is still basically about having fun, as it always was for me. The time to have a job comes soon enough. We shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to turn our kids into adults.

Rob Witwer is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and co-author of the book, “The Blueprint: How Democrats Won Colorado and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care.”