The Push to Play: Kids, Sports and Competition

Are you your kid’s biggest superfan?


Each year, about 35 million children play organized sports. If you ask kids why they play, most just want to have fun. In fact, according to a study by Michigan State University’s Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, 65 percent of kids say they want to be with their friends, and almost three-quarters say they wouldn’t even care if the score was kept in their games. 

Team sports help kids develop a sense of belonging, self-competence, not to mention building lifelong physical skills and an appreciation of fitness. As kids get older, sports play a huge role in learning time-management, focus, teamwork and the payoff of hard work and effort.

So if most kids just play to have fun, why are so many of us obsessed with developing elite athletes?

The promise of greatness

If you’re hoping for a college scholarship, you might want to rethink your strategy. In truth, very few high-school athletes get the chance to play college sports. According to the NCAA, less than 6 percent of high-school football players, 3 percent of male and female basketball players, and 5 percent of male soccer players will play Division I, and most of those students will only get a fraction of the financial scholarship parents are hoping for. (Read more here.)

Moreover, no matter how great an athlete your child is, if the grades aren’t there, he won’t get the spot. To play Division I or II, you need a GPA of 2.0 or higher, and if it’s between your excellent athlete who’s a mediocre student and the lesser athlete with the higher GPA, chances are the smarter kid will get the spot.

But my child is different

“It’s easy to believe your child has a shot when there are so many professionals out there selling the dream,” explains Matt Gallo, licensed professional counselor with The Child, Adolescent & Family Development Center, and former athletic trainer, travel and college soccer coach.

“It’s really a successful business model,” Gallo says. “Parents who want every opportunity for their kids with the means to achieve it, and coaches convincing parents that they can provide athletes with the training, physical development and exposure it takes to become the best.”

Gallo urges parents to be good consumers. If your child makes an elite team, ask yourself if he or she get the best value out of the experience—particularly if they are not getting playing time. Most kids don’t buy it, considering 90 percent of kids surveyed by MSU would rather play on a losing team than warm the bench on a winning one.

When it’s OK to push your child

The same Michigan State report identified the most appropriate time to introduce real intensity to a child’s athletic pursuits. The report found that the most successful athletes were allowed to play in as many sports as possible growing up so they could appreciate the value of hard work and have fun. It wasn’t until high school when the athletes recognized their passion that they start devoting the extra time and energy to achieve excellence.

“If you have a teen who lives to play a certain sport and thrives on pushing herself to be better, then it’s okay to give her all the opportunities she needs to work towards that college scholarship,” Gallo says. “But make sure you pay attention and listen if you start to get pushback. Burnout with kids happens fast, and too often it’s the coaches (not the parents) who are pushing too hard.”

Your job as a parent

How do you keep it all in perspective? Gallo offers this simple question: Am I doing what’s best for my kid, or more importantly, am I doing what’s going to bring out the best in my kid?

Think about whether it’s you or your child who wants to play at a higher level. Is the payoff of getting better with higher competition worth the inevitable stress, time away from friends and academic sacrifice? Or is this about your ego? Answer those questions, and decision making becomes a lot easier.


Photo: Boy playing soccer by Bigstock