The Unwanted Mistress by Deb Jenny

The perfect sport is the theme this week, but whenever sports come to mind for me, I can’t help but feel a sense of resentment. You see, as a parent, I have spent the past decade and a half trying to protect my family from the egregious encroachment of sports into our lives, an inevitability as sports have become more and more of a monstrous entity in today’s world.

I think my feelings about sports became crystalized a couple of years ago as I was listening to National Public Radio as esteemed sportswriter Frank DeFord praised the state of sports for young athletes today, impressed that these kids are now fast-tracked and forced to specialize early and play year-round.

Sports leagues are now targeted for those few who excel, rather than the many who merely do well. This saddens me. For those of us who have watched our children be forced to choose or lose in a sport by the ripe old age of eight or nine, the reality of sports for children is ugly. Organized sports has become the unwanted mistress in the lives of most families in America today. And there’s very little we can do about it, short of pulling our kids out of these programs altogether.

Mr. DeFord’s beliefs reflect the warped attitude of a core group of sports-obsessed people who have created an environment for young athletes that is both hostile to their families and detrimental to the children. In this era of sports-at-all-costs, all sense of balance has been lost in order to enhance the skills for the oh-so-few athletes who have a chance at a scholarship or pro career.

What fast-tracking means is that kids must chose by second or third grade to essentially eat, drink, breath, sleep and dream baseball, gymnastics, swimming, whatever. It means no more music lessons, it means no more playing at home after school. It means the end of family dinners together, and often weekends as well. Nowadays, you’re hard-pressed to find kids just playing at home with their friends. Because most are forced to devote all of their free time to this all-important Sport of Choice.

My family’s dilemma is shared by many these days. Our kids, decent athletes, love sports. They prefer a challenging level of play. But in order to achieve this, they are forced to give up their lives to the game.

When my youngest was nine, she started playing on a travel soccer team. This meant three practices weekly, sometimes two or more games a weekend, often hours away from our home.

After driving three hours each way for a game, she confessed to me, “I’d rather lose a game at home than have to sit in the car for six hours, even if we win.”

This from a child who adored her team, her coach, the game.

Why must a child sacrifice her childhood for someone else’s elusive goal of scholarship and glory? So that a select few will be able to earn obscene amounts of money before they’re old enough to know how to handle it?

Frank DeFord was right: the premier young athletes of our time have reaped the benefits of the exceedingly rigorous schedules that have become mandatory for all. But he’s wrong to think this is a good thing. Take it from me: it’s not. More is not usually better. Most of the time it’s just too much.


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((¸¸. ·´ .. ·´Jenny G. -:¦:-
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18 Replies to “The Unwanted Mistress by Deb Jenny”

  1. Interesting insight, Jenny. I see this in my brother’s family where his three boys all play hockey. Not only is it a financial and emotional drain on the parents who spend their two days away from the grind carting the boys here, there and everywhere for the games/tournaments, but it’s a lot of pressure on the kids to succeed. I know my brother tells the kids he wants them just to have fun, but you can see the pressure there; it’s in the kids’ eyes.

    Not to mention my mother’s heartache when they miss yet another extended family dinner because of hockey.

  2. I hear ya. The stories from the trenches are unfathomable. Our friends have 5 kids, all highly competitive in various sports, a few in gymnastics. They moved the entire family so that one could be at the right gym. At this gym she had to put in 45 hours a week by the time she was in 9th grade. Can you imagine? That’s a full time job+, and then school. This year, her junior year, she gave it up and she is SO thrilled to be done with it. But at what cost? Or our friend’s daughter’s soccer team–juniors and seniors. EVERY weekend from July through Christmas was taken up with a tournament. From Thanksgiving to Christmas they were in 5 different cities (a few of which they had to fly to) because the “scouts” would be there. All this because MAYBE one, two girls tops might be eligible for division C soccer scholarships. Where is the good sense in this? Oh, the many people we know who have cancelled family vacations when their kids made baseball All-Stars. We struggled greatly to keep a balance but it’s really hard because it’s basically put up or shut up. And NO ONE dares complain because then your kid is blackballed…It’s really made me bristle at the whole organized sports world.

  3. Good post, Jenny. I must say that while I gave my son Cody the opportunity to be in team sports, he tried a couple years and decided it wasn’t for him. I was relieved. I’m scared for my two younger ones, though, that they’ll want it more. I don’t think I can handle all that running. I am a total homebody and my husband works nights and weekends. I know I couldn’t do it alone, either.

    On a side note, I’m halfway through Sleeping With Ward Cleaver and am really enjoying it! 🙂

  4. I totally agree. And I think that because of the intensive nature of practices, etc., from a young age, some kids who should be mediocre at a sport are decent at it, and therefore bound to continue with it at the expense of other interests. I played on a rinky-dink basketball team when I was 10-12 years old. Meanwhile, I still had time for writing. I spent so much time at that age writing! I can’t imagine having to play basketball constantly.

    My young sister was on a traveling soccer team by the time she was 9, and had time for nothing else (she complained about this in the car once when I was driving her to practice, and when I asked her what she’d rather do with her spare time, she said, “Watch Xena, Warrior Princess“).

  5. It’s true that youngsters are giving up their childhood for a game that no one will ever remember. Still sports “teaches” and gets kids moving, so why not have recreational teams for those who just want to have fun?

  6. With four kids involved in various activities, I can totally relate to your post! It’s a constant battle to maintain sanity. Baseball season for my 3rd child (camps, training etc) now starts in January and it used to start in April.

  7. I lived in Sioux Falls SD from 1988 to 1993 and my three kids were in elementary school. We signed them up for soccer, because everyone there played. The best thing was the availability of different leagues: recreationsl for kids/parents who just wanted to have fun; club leagues for those who were more serious about it; and elite “traveling” teams for parents that I personally considered obsessive. After, even IF your child becomes an Olympic or professional athlete, by the time they’re 40 they have to have another life. How smart is it for a parent to hang their child’s entire future on the peg of sports when at the very BEST, they’ll only be able to do it for half their life?

  8. Danielle I think you’ll be fortunate to not have it be quite so insane since you guys live in a city. Perhaps this is an ailment of suburbia?
    Stacey–good for you avoiding it as much as possible–esp if you have to do all the trekking for it b/c of your husband’s work schedule. Sometimes you just have to know when to say no! And I’m so glad you’re enjoying Sleeping with Ward Cleaver!
    Katie–it’s so true how much these kids are excluded from because of this. The other thing is I think there are a lot of “late bloomers” who basically miss out on the athletics end because they are excluded from ever being able to go beyond basic rec teams which often now consist of those who just aren’t particularly adept at the sport–thus it’s hard for a kid who is more into the sport to play at that level as well. It becomes quite a catch 22.
    Larramie–I agree that rec teams are a great idea, though because of the levels of play being segmented into such extremes, “rec” teams don’t offer much competition so if a kid wants to be able to mix it up, they’re forced to be on these higher level teams that demand so much of them time-wise, commitment-wise, travel-wise.
    Oh, Wendy, can’t imagine it w/ 4 kids. My friends who have 5 and 6 kids (I know several, believe it or not!) must have to have spread sheets. It seems to be a logistical impossibility to have them all in activities these days…And the whole baseball season is insane–it’s often now year-round! It’s so crazy! I know people who travel year-round for their boys baseball when the kids are 10 and 11 years old. Whatever happened to, uh, life???
    Rhonda–that’s precisely it. Even if your kid becomes the elite Olympian or whatever, after that, they’ll be left to scratch their heads wondering, “Uh, now what? My ENTIRE life has been devoted to this, there has been this huge void of a balance, and now this is done. What do I do?” I think that even Dorothy Hamill had this experience after her Olympic win. Plus can you imagine the wear and tear on these kids’ bodies at this point? We had a swim team coach for summer recreational swim team who had the kids swimming 2 hours a day. Two hours a day??? It’s CRAZY in my humble opinion…

  9. After years of baseball it became clear to me that the coach with the “Winner” team who took them into a nearby city to do batting practice nightly and get a jump on the other coaches training, who browbeat them, asked them to give up all their waking moments to practice, only played the good kids, despite league rules, ===basically taught me that behind every driven team is a driven jock coach who wants his glory back. We all despised his methods, but some dads seem very attracted to the whole thing. We had some good coaches too- super people who let the kids play, taught them well, and even won a championship or two! They did learn some good lessons being on teams. And of course there was the time I requested my son not be on a certain coaches team and of course the child was blacklisted via my stupid request and put on the worst team in the league. He had some talent too but the mighty ego of the coach was more important.

    But Baseball pales in comparison to Soccer around here as well. In our house we forbid our kids to play soccer. I’m not kidding. LOL. Its not just THEIR Life down the drain, its OURS! And hello, baseball gets called for torrential rain and lightening, but soccer? Nothing- sleet, snow, freezing, hot enough to fry an egg on the field, year round it seems, the show must go on! I’m not a twenty year old mom, I’m not built for weather. LOL We let them pick two sports- and they ended up being Tennis (very nice location to hang as a mom- lol) and Baseball, the lesser evil. Now my son did Freshman Football, which was sort of like a Three Stooges movie, and very enjoyable, but I hope he quits now. I like his brain the way it is. How about track honey?

  10. LOL Sus–yeah, we are tortured by all of the soccer nonsense. Makes me crazy. The stories I could tell would make your hair curl. Tennis, that’s a nice, civilized and useful sport. My son did cross country in the fall and that was also a lovely one, not too obsessive. But all of those (mostly) men living vicariously through the next generation really do need to get a life!

  11. I don’t have kids yet, but I’m NOT looking forward to the competi-parents I’m bound to run into should my future offspring show an inclination towards any serious organized sports. And yep, you’re right about the people living vicariously though their kids needing to get a bit of a life…and the beat goes on. 😉

  12. It’s starting already and my son isn’t even in kindergarten! My husband wants to get him into some kind of organized physical activity. I’ll admit he’s got lots of excess energy to burn off and could use some help with learning to be coordinated (this kid never seems to know where all four of his limbs are at any given time) BUT I’ve resisted, because I hate the “schedule” thing starting already.

    I was chatting with a mother before a child’s birthday party and commented, “Isn’t it nice they get to jump around and blow off steam in the winter? It’s so hard to get much activity this time of year.”

    She responded, “Oh NO! Not MY Tommy. He’s in tumbling, and soccer and we’re ALWAYS going somewhere.” And she said it with such pride, as if she’d just scored points on me in some contest!

  13. Oh, Kristina–resist!!! Yeah, that mom won, all right. She won herself one giant PIA having to schedule her kid into these insane rigors, when they could enjoy sitting home reading a book together. Sheesh!
    Jess–I love the term competi-parents!

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