The Costs (Financial and Emotional) of Youth Sports

The big sports story in Boston this week is of course the World Series. But it's also significant that this week it's not Boston-based parents who are the subject of the bad sports parent story making national headlines. As I've written about before in Boston Magazine, youth sports in Massachusetts tend to be extremely competitive and lead to some ill-behavior. Boston Sports Parents by Zohar Lazar for Boston Magazine

In the tournament showdown in the piece hockey parents took the "prize," so it's no surprise that when a parent got in a fight at a youth sporting event and actually punched a CHILD, it was at a hockey game. A 14-year-old was punched in the face by a 44-year-old chiropractor in Palm Beach County, FL. Dr. Matthew Supran was arrested after also pounding the child's head into the boards. It must be noted that Palm Beach is an affluent area and Supran is obviously educated-- showing that the intense competitive youth culture impacts people even at the higher ends of the class structure.

Earlier this month an article I wrote for The Atlantic on the history of on competitive youth sports helped inspire this NYT's Room for Debate, which provoked some thoughtful responses and comments on how to balance these activities for kids. Of course the focus should be on kids, and not parents. A mix of fun and seriousness seems to be the right mix, but it's hard to get that exactly right.

And, of course, participation in these activities isn't free-- not even close. Last weekend NBC Nightly News did a segment on two baseball playing brothers at IMG Academies and how much their parents pay each year (close to six-figures for *each* of them). As you'll see around 1:43 of this clip, I make an appearance emphasizing how important it is to not just focus on one activity for the health of your child, by which I mean both physically and psychologically.

While this post may seem a bit negative, it is important to remember that there are also many benefits to participation in youth sports, as I wrote about last week for The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Human Capital blog (a Foundation that has funded parts of my research). In fact I emphasize that the impact of participation can be so great that we need to work to ensure that *all* children have access to the skills and lessons youth sports help develop, and not just the kids whose parents can invest six-figures and who live in Palm Beach...

Pint-Sized Football Phenoms

We're in the midst of multiple football seasons-- Pop Warner, high school, college, and pros-- and, like anything, we have some good and some bad stories. The bad stories focus on injuries and over-involved adults.  Massachusetts and New England are no strangers to crazy youth sports parents and physical altercations (as I wrote about in last month's Boston Magazine).  While hockey parents were named the whackiest, football parents came in a close second.  Given that, it's no surprise that MA youth football season has been making headlines-- both in the region and nationally.  Following a September game between two Central Massachusetts teams which resulted in five preteen players sustaining concussions, adult coaches and officials were suspended and banned for allowing aggressive play to go on for so long.  In general the reaction has been negative mainly because of the new culture surrounding football in general with regard to head injuries, especially when it comes to the youth game.

But just as we have become more concerned over the safety of youth football players, we also have seen a rise in the number of pint-sized football phenoms.  An article in the October 15th issue of The New Yorker by Ben McGrath, "Head Start: Steve Clarkson grooms future quarterbacks for the pros," sheds light on private coaching for young quarterbacks, which can start as soon as kids hit double digits.  It's not surprising that organizations like Clarkson's Dreammaker Academy exist, given society's penchant for rewarding precocity and athletic achievement.  What is surprising about the article is the extent to which some parents will go to get their children in with Clarkson and college coaches-- like holding their sons back a year in middle school (different from academic redshirting in kindergarten), paying thousands of dollars for an hour session, or changing schools (sometimes mid-year, sometimes across state lines, and sometimes inventing a new school from scratch).  McGrath rightly points out that it has taken a surprisingly long time to cultivate football prodigies (partly because size is so important, but unclear until kids get older), but given the intricacy behind the quarterback position it makes sense that this would be the first one to see the youngest of the pint-sized football phenoms.

Even though I hope my own son won't be a pint-sized football phenom someday-- primarily because of concerns about head injuries (and I'm not the only mom who thinks this!)-- I would be thrilled if he displayed the type of character these pint-sized football phenoms have shown this fall.  Yes, these are the good stories and you may need a tissue after you read them.

1) Heartwarming story about a senior football star in Ohio, Michael Ferns, who intentionally went out of bounds so that a freshman, Logan Thompson, could score. Why? Thompson's father had just passed away from a stroke two days before.  Special moment in video and pictures can be seen here.

2) Great story about a NJ kicker, Anthony Starego, who helped his team win recently.  What's special about his story is that he has pretty severe autism.  I also love that his team has fully accepted him and they make sure that no one bullies him.  Just hope that all of the people discussed in this story are safe after Hurricane Sandy.

3) But  the best story in my opinion is about Carson Jones and Chy Johnson.  Chy has a brain disorder and had been severely bullied. Her mom spoke to Jones, the star quarterback of an undefeated high school team in AZ.  Jones and his teammates took Chy under their wings and had her sit with them at lunch.  Everyday.  I first read about this on the 27th in New York Daily News. I was not at all surprised to see that ESPN picked up the story a few days later.  Rick Reilly's story about Chy and her boys moved me even more deeply-- though didn't mention if the team was still undefeated. No matter what the outcome of their season is, this are remarkable young men. I dare you to read about them and not tear up a bit.

While Carston likely won't be on any undefeated football teams, I hope he is an honorable man like Carson Jones.  I hope he appreciates people's differences-- the good and the bad-- and can root for others.  He attended his first football game this weekend (Harvard vs. Columbia, and he cheered the Crimson on to victory).  Even fans can be pint-sized phenoms.