Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

A Youth Sports Blog

Archive for April 23rd, 2009

I review until it hurts. I mean, “Until It Hurts.”

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Mark Hyman’s “Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids,” is a concise (140 pages) look at how, well, America’s obsession with youth sports is harming our kids. It was an interesting read, and I must give Hyman some credit for his taste in blogs.

It’s easy to react to Hyman’s book by demanding that the entire parent/coaching/merchandising establishment be rounded up and shot for the child abuse they call youth sports. But I didn’t have that reaction, in part because I’m a heartless bastard, and in part because I was a history minor. (The two might be related.) Instead, I found snippets that were telling about why all this crazy sports parenting might not be so crazy after all.

Hyman opens his book talking about looking at a picture of his son Ben at 18 months old out in the snow with a T-ball set. “Whose idea was it to hone the swing of a toddler in the dead of winter? Mine. What was I thinking? I wish I had an answer.” This guilt is a running theme as Hyman exorcises his own demons of Ben needing arm surgery as a teenager after a series of coaches, including himself, pitched him too much. The book ends with Ben have a grand old time pitching on a college club team, no adults coaches to be found.

Hyman has plenty of other stories of athletes burned out, mentally and physically, by specializing in a sport from an early age, pushed by adults to succeed. Did you know, for example, that Michael Phelps’ sister Whitney was the original Olympic hope of the family, until her body burned out by age 16?

cover-of-until-it-hurts1Maybe it’s the historian in me, but I would have loved to have read a lot more about the history of organized youth sports, and how it evolved. It seems pretty clear that adults from day one had purposes other than just fun and games; usually it had something to do with preparing for war. There’s great stuff in the book like how Little League Baseball, by 1955, had frozen out Carl Stotz, who only founded LLB in 1939. He had the temerity to question the wisdom of an LLB World Series.

An interesting history as well would have talked about something not quite so youth sport-y, but something that drives the nuttiness we see today — how the demands of college recruiters and the money to be made in pro sports has changed the youth sports dynamic.

While old-time coaches like UCLA volleyball coach Al Scates and Hawaii baseball coach Les Murakamai speak out against the year-round specialization that provides the Hurts of the book, newer coaches like Quinnipiac women’s soccer coach Dave Clarke refuse to look at any player who hasn’t survived the rigors of club soccer. To him, school soccer is, and I paraphrase, for losers.

Hyman lays out the overwhelming odds against your kid not getting a college scholarship, much less going pro. (In most nonrevenue sports, few athletes are getting scholarships of any kind. That’s why you always see a few football players on the baseball team or track team.) But you’re not going to have a chance if your kid doesn’t specialize early and aim for that elusive scholarship. Given how colleges recruit and who pros sign, parents (and their children) who go down this road are not crazy. They’re making a rational decision based on the available evidence.

It’s like the lottery — you don’t win if you don’t play. Like the lottery, if you win, you win huge. But if you fall short, you have a lot of regrets and money pissed down the toilet. Hyman’s book focuses on how much is being pissed away, and how adults are squeezing the bladder. However, there’s still a book to be written to explain, in further detail and with less author’s guilt, how we got here.

(Oh, and a personal note to Mark Hyman, in case he reads this — don’t feel guilty. Like any parents, you made the best decisions you could with the information you had on hand. Plus, who doesn’t get caught up in their kids playing a sports, especially when they’re good? It’s nerve-wracking to watch you kid out there alone, especially as a pitcher, in control of everything when you’re not. As for that picture, my daughters dragged bats and balls out in the dead of winter when they were 18 months old. I suspect the idea to have Ben hit off a tee at that age and that time was not all yours.)

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