One of my favorite moments last summer was hearing this exchange between two soccer players on my daughter’s team in the middle of a game: When one girl hollered out, “What’s the score?” another replied, “I don’t know. It doesn’t matter anyway!”
That right defender wasn’t being defeatist. She was expressing the attitude of many of the teens who played in this low-key park-and-recreation league. They were there to have fun, win or lose. They were busy kids—some gifted athletes, some not—and they were there because they liked soccer and didn’t want to commit their summer to attending constant practices and traveling throughout the state to get their play time in.
But involvement in low-key leagues is becoming less common these days. Balancing competition and fun in girls sports can be tricky. For many girls, participation in team sports has become an all-or-nothing scenario. Girls (and boys) are increasingly placed in competitive “select” teams that require sizeable fees and extensive driving to practices and games on weeknights and weekends. For a parent who just wants a girl to have occasional fun with sports, the options are pretty slim.
Many believe this youth sports trend can be damaging to both kids and families. Elite, hyper-competitive sports leave children (and their parents) too focused on winning rather than on playing for the love of the game. And such competition creates another pressure: the time this level of play demands saps both family time and much-needed down time, according to the advocacy organization Putting Family First (www.puttingfamilyfirst.org). This group encourages parents to lead local efforts to persuade sports and other extracurricular groups to limit practice and meeting time and to increase family time. In a Minneapolis suburb last year, the group led a boycott of youth sports, including tournaments, games, and practices, on Sundays.
Some health groups are also concerned that sports begins too early for youngsters. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children delay specializing in a sport until age 12 or 13, when they’re more emotionally and physically mature. “Basic motor skills, such as throwing, catching, kicking, and hitting a ball, do not develop sooner simply as a result of introducing them to children at an earlier age,” the AAP states. Early introduction to these skills may cause more frustration than success in the sport. Yet it’s common to start kids in team sports as preschoolers, with a year-round focus on one sport by age 8 or 9.
Of course, club sports and school teams can be beneficial for girls. Having a social support group outside of school during the rocky adolescent years can also be helpful. Girls learn valuable life lessons as they deal with competition and politics, and the regular physical activity helps reinforce a healthy lifestyle. While free time decreases, they can learn to become more organized in school and other activities.
But for girls whose parents don’t have the resources to commit time and money to travel to competitions, and for girls who aren’t skilled enough to join a select team, finding reliable sports programs close to home is crucial. However, it’s sometimes even difficult for community-based programs to find a place to practice, because private leagues frequently reserve time on city fields.
As parents, we need to advocate for sports involvement that allows our daughters to learn and practice a sport without allowing it to consume her life. Whether we do it by launching boycotts or forming city committees or simply taking a hard look at the role in sports options in our girls’ life, it’s time to step up to the plate.
Kristal Leebrick lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.