Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

A Youth Sports Blog

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

with 3 comments

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.)

3 Responses

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  1. I would like to agree with you in that most of the games played by children throughout history were used to help pass on life skills which include warrior skills, farming skills, social skills, etc… Now I am going way back with those skills. Youth sport actually started more or less as we know it in sandlots and alleys with kids playing stick ball. They made their own rules and often handicapped the better kids and modified rules for everyone to be successful. Please notice I said modified the rules!!!! As adults started to organize youth sport to “make them better and safer” the rules became the rules and the kids no longer had a say. I could go on in my lecture but then we would get into the theories of play and I would have to pull out my .ppt’s.


    April 24, 2009 at 5:55 am

  2. No! Not the .ppt’s!

    My only disagreement would be that kids inherently make the rules so others can be successful. Growing up, and hearing the kids in my yard and my driveway, I hear(d) a lot of arguing and accusations of cheating. I remember one backyard baseball game where a kid threatened to knife me if I scored, and I grew up in suburban la-la land. Also, I remember interviewing Arthur Ashe (name-dropping alert) in college about a physician fitness effort he was leading, and he talked about how ruthless the playground culture was, particularly on the basketball court — if the other kids didn’t see you as good, you never played at all.

    Also, without organized sports, a lot of kids otherwise wouldn’t leave the house, either because they can’t pry themselves away from the Xbox, or because they live in areas that are unfriendly to neighborhood play because the lots are too large or the crime is too high.

    Not to excuse the excesses of adults running organized sports. But I think to have an honest conversation on how to solve their problems, we need to disabuse ourselves that if kids are left to their own devices, they will always play and have fun and rainbows and unicorns will follow in their wake.


    April 24, 2009 at 9:32 am

  3. […] mixed message on pushing their kids hard in sports — don’t do it because of the risk of injury and burnout, but do it because it’s the only way your child will ever get a scholarship or pro career. […]

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