Why do your kids play sports?
It’s a simple question, but one shockingly few sports parents actually consider. We live in a time where more youth athletes than ever are experiencing physical and mental burnout. How and why they play sports is often at the root of these issues.
Dr. Tommy John is dedicated to restoring the sanity and safety to youth sports. The chiropractor and former baseball performance trainer is the son of retired MLB pitcher Tommy John, the first baseball player to undergo ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, a procedure that’s now colloquially known as “Tommy John surgery.” When John begin to notice more and more of his baseball training company’s young clients being broken down by their sport, he knew something was amiss.
“This is 10, 12 years ago, and the kids coming into my baseball lessons, they were starting to come in more and more injured,” John says. “The stuff I was seeing, the injury cases I was seeing in these kids, they were the things that 40, 50, 60-year-olds were experiencing. I’m like, wait a second, something’s not right.”
Distraught over the fact he was potentially contributing to overuse injuries as early specialization increasingly became the norm, he shutdown his baseball training company, went to chiropractic school to earn a doctorate to supplement his Master’s degrees in Health and Exercise Science, and opened Tommy John Performance and Healing Center in San Diego. “I was making a fortune in the offseason in baseball skill development when these kids should not be touching a ball, glove or bat,” John says. “There was a lot of stuff going on I couldn’t ignore.”
In his book, “Minimize Injury, Maximize Performance: A Sports Parent’s Survival Guide,” John outlines four questions parents should ask themselves when it comes to their child’s involvement and relationship with sports. If you answer yes to any of them, that’s worth some introspection.
“Get that if you (do) answer yes, you just need to look at yourself a little closer. That’s all I want. It’s not a shame-fest. I’m not trying to shame anybody, I’m not trying to make anybody feel bad. But, we’ve gone comfortable for so long, and no one’s kinda spoken the truth for upsetting the herd. Well, the herd’s jumping off a cliff,” John says.
“There’s no coach, therapist, specialist, training, organization that’s gonna save these (kids) and turn this around. It can’t be. It has to be in the way we’re raising these kids, and the only person who’s going to be able to do that, the only organization, is the parents. It’s got to come back to that.”
Question 1: Are Your Kids in Sports Because It’s Convenient?
When John taught baseball lessons, he often felt more like a babysitter than a coach. A lot of parents get their kids involved in organized sports simply to keep them out their hair, which doesn’t sound so bad. But when the commitments mount and the child isn’t actually all that interested in what they’re doing, it’s a recipe for dissatisfaction. If all those commitments are for the same sport, it’s a recipe for overuse.
“They’re signing them up so they can have free time. It’s because it’s convenient and not because the kid actually wants to play,” John says. This factor also often leads to the over-scheduling of kids, leaving them little time for free play. The result is parents who shell out thousands of dollars a year to keep their kid busy—even if their not happy.
Question 2: Are Your Kids in Sports Because Everyone Else’s Kid Is?
“It’s that keeping up with the Joneses. Looking around your neighborhood, looking right, looking left—What is everybody else doing?,” John says. “That whole comparison against all these other families, that has to stop.”
It’s not just their kids playing sports that people get competitive about, but the teams they play for, the camps they attend, the private instructor they train with, etc. Those options are more plentiful than ever before, and parents are getting their kids involved with them earlier and earlier. Part of the reason for that is a fear of “falling behind.” John says he knows travel team coaches who’ll even push on that pressure point to get certain young athletes to join their team.
“I know some of them, they use that as leverage. Leverage to beef up their team. ‘Oh, so and so is on the team,’” John says. “(Parents) are all gabbing and comparing and contrasting because in their mind, if they’re not participating in what the neighbors are, they’re gonna be left behind.”
Not only can this force kids to play too much, but the constant travel and intense pressure that often accompanies these “exclusive” teams can quickly suck the fun out of the sport. For parents, it can drain stunning amounts of money out of their bank account. More than 60 percent of American families shell out between $1,200-$6,000 annually per child on youth sports, while 20 percent spend an incredible $12,000 or more.
Question 3: Are Your Kids in Sports Only Because You Were?
It’s totally cool to share your passions with your kids. It’s awesome when they genuinely enjoy some of those same passions. But if you find yourself trying to live through your child via sports, it’s time to take a step back.
“There is the element of unfulfilled dreams, and some of these parents are trying to live through the kids, for sure,” John says. If you’re the type who rarely asks their kid if they had fun after a game or practice and instead tells them everything they could’ve done better or differently, this might be you.
Question 4: Are Your Kids in Sports Because You Want Them to Turn Pro?
John says this question can also be “Are your kids in sports because you want them to get a college scholarship?”
These outcome-based goals add extraordinary amounts of pressure to an athlete’s relationship with sport. Despite the fact that the odds a high school athlete will earn a D1 scholarship are quite low, and the odds of them going on to play major professional sports a minuscule percentage of that, more parents than ever seem to believe they have a prodigy on their hands. A recent survey found that 81% of parents believe their kids’ extracurricular activities will someday lead to income (with sports being far and away the most popular activity among the respondents). 90% of parents who spend at least $4,000 per year on an extracurricular activity think their kid will one day make money from it.
Many shady coaches, trainers or organizers are to blame for this, as they’re quick to tell a parent how great their kid is and how bright of a future they could have if they know it’ll squeeze more money out of them.
“It starts with the lie that your kid is better than they are,” John says. “If every kid was this amazing, we’d have to make new colleges just to fit them. There’s no way. We’re not better. We’re just milking the mediocre for billions and the good are still the good.”
If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, take some time to reflect on that. “If you can answer yes, don’t freak out. Again, look back at yourself,” John says. “You have to rethink your approach. Why are we in sports? And if has to get back to ‘Do my son or daughter want to play sports? Do they want to participate? Are they liking it anymore? Do they want to try a different one?’”
It may all sound like common sense, but in today’s youth sports landscape, we could use more of that. Read more from Dr. Tommy John and his book at DontCutMyKid.com.
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