This morning as I was driving to work, I listened to a story on NPR, How Likely Is It, Really, That Your Athletic Kid Will Turn Pro? that really caught my attention. I was amazed to find out that about 26% of parents believe their children have a shot at becoming a pro athlete, and the percentage is even higher in low-income families at about 49%. Compare this to the reality of the situation:
According to the NCAA, out of the nearly 8 million children playing sports, only 460,000 will compete in college, and only a tiny fraction of that group will ever become a professional athlete.
So what is this all about? Why do so many parents start pushing their children so hard, at younger and younger ages, with the hopes that they will one day become a superstar? I don’t remember kids sports being that intense when my girls were growing up, and it certainly wasn’t that way when I was growing up.
I was somewhat athletic as a child, and aside from a year or two on the track team, I didn’t have a chance to be a part of any teams because of all the chaos going on in my household, and also, because parents just didn’t run their kids around that much back then. I remember being on the first girl’s soccer team, which wasn’t really a team, since there weren’t any other teams to play. Mostly we just spent a few weeks learning how to play.
So I have to admit, I was pretty excited when I became aware of how many opportunities were available to my daughters. We lived within walking distance from the neighborhood YMCA, and the girls tried just about everything, water ballet, swimming, softball, t-ball, basketball, gymnastics, jazz dance, tap and ballet, karate, drill team, diving, and lacrosse, not to mention the non-sports related activities they insisted on trying like chess club, acting, trumpet lessons, and violin.
Believe me, I spent a lot of hours watching my girls sitting in various fields making daisy chains, getting karate chopped in the face, and knocked in the head by a ball they didn’t see coming.
The thing is, we didn’t really take any of these activities too seriously, and none of them took much time away from their time running around playing with the neighborhood kids.
That is until they reached high school and they each found their true passion. One started dancing her heart out, practicing hours on end, attending classes, competitions, and workshops, for the sheer joy of it. The other daughter took to the water, getting up early in the morning and going back in the evenings every day to spend hours in the pool.
I must admit, it was hard not to get sucked into their excitement, especially when they were doing so well. It can be quite addictive watching your child compete and do well, and heartbreaking when things don’t go so well for them.
Eventually my daughter who loved to dance gave up competing and spent several years teaching dance before family life took over.
My other daughter did make it as a four-year division I athlete, although it was at times very difficult. She learned a lot of lessons in that process about the importance of maintaining balance and dealing with the pressures that come with that level of competition.
I’m glad I took the good advice one of her coaches gave me one summer, when my daughter asked him what he thought about her starting to swim year round. She was about 12 at the time, and many kids had already been swimming year round for a few years. His advice to her was to hold off on that for a few years, so that she didn’t get burned out.
My advice to anyone wrestling with how far to push their young children is this: let them have fun while they are young. If they show a lot of potential in a particular sport, help them to pace themselves and keep it fun. There are lots of benefits to participating in sports, such as the team spirit, physical activity, and mental endurance, and these benefits can be easily lost when parents become too intense and worried about how far their kids talents will take them.