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High-pressure youth sports carry high price

John Keilman, Chicago Tribune –

My son has played organized sports since he was 3, and so far it has been great. He has made lots of friends, gotten plenty of exercise and learned about being a good teammate and tenacious competitor. The time commitment and expense have been reasonable, the games fun to watch.

But now he’s 9 and things are getting serious. A lot of his friends have joined travel teams, shuttling to distant baseball fields or hockey rinks as their parents quietly grumble about lost weekends and evaporating bank accounts. My boy recently asked about joining a club soccer team that costs $1,500 a year, not counting gas, hotels and carbon fiber shin guards.

It feels like we’ve hit the fork in the road that awaits many families these days, and as someone who has written stories about youth sports gone wild, I’m afraid of what might happen if we veer toward Travel Land.

Will we have to drive 500 miles to watch my kid’s team get blown out by a bunch of mini-Peles from Council Bluffs, Iowa? Will we feel obliged to hire a nutritionist, a personal trainer and a speed coach? Will we start fretting over the camera angles in his YouTube highlight reel?

To put it bluntly, will we lose our minds?

I thought about this recently as I read a new book exploring the financial side of the sports industrial complex. “The Most Expensive Game in Town: The Rising Cost of Youth Sports and the Toll on Today’s Families” chronicles a long list of absurdities, from training videos aimed at babies to a $700-an-hour quarterback tutor.

Author Mark Hyman says adults have hijacked children’s games in the name of status and profit, and too many parents are blindly playing along.

“(It’s) rooted in cultural values that have emerged over the last 20 years,” he told me. “We’re dreaming bigger than ever for our kids in so many ways. It’s true of violin lessons, ballet, SAT prepgenerally we have high expectations for our kids and it’s a very competitive society. We’re measuring our performance as parents based on how our kids are doing.”

That anxiety makes some moms and dads sitting ducks for the near-constant stream of commercial pitches. They’re all too eager to believe that some marvelous gadget or magical words of instruction will transform their klutzy, scatterbrained kid from a dandelion-plucking right fielder into a laser-focused shortstop who devours grounders like cheese puffs.

They’re also looking for some affirmation that their children are special. What better way to prove that than to watch Junior make a volleyball club’s A roster or score a hat trick at a 100-team tournament?

Hyman said he’s not trying to pick on parents. He, too, has shared these impulses, once sending his son to an expensive baseball camp in the hope that a college coach would recruit the lad (he didn’t). But without some objectivity, he said, it’s easy to go too far.

True enough, I figured. But what about the lessons high-level competition can teach? You might understand that your daughter won’t be the next Brittney Griner, but won’t she still learn the value of grit, perseverance and the pursuit of excellence by facing the best?

Not necessarily, Hyman said.

“You can develop a wonderful, lifelong work ethic playing youth sports with a nurturing coach and friends down the street, just as you can traveling 1,500 miles to play at some complex in Des Moines,” he said. “I don’t see what that has to do with a kid playing in the rec program or the most competitive travel team.”

As nutty as travel sports can be, I’m still open to the idea of my son playing. I have a reasonable grip on reality, I’d like to think, and I’m not planning to retire on my son’s Manchester United signing bonus.

But frankly, I hope he decides to keep things casual for at least a little longer. I doubt any trophy can replace the fun kids have on the lower rungs of sport.

I’m thinking of a recent day when my son went to a friend’s house to play street hockey. At first it was just the two of them, but then other boys started pouring from their houses, and before you knew it, a dozen of them were running, laughing and blasting the lightweight puck at each other.

I’ll bet he remembers that forever. It was a wonderful afternoonmostly, no doubt, because adults had nothing to do with it.

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