Organized sports provide many benefits, but how do we know what's too much?
With six children, the amateur sports scene could easily become exhausting for our family. Imagine having each one on a soccer team, all playing at the same time. Between games and practices, we’re talking about at least a dozen places we would need to have a specific child at a specific time every single week. Friends, there are only seven days in a week. The hurried drop-offs, car time, and missed dinners makes me break out into a cold sweat just thinking about it.
Don’t even get me started on the year-round travel teams that practice two or three times per week and might play eight games in a single weekend in a random town hundreds of miles away. Sports would literally consume our lives. All my dinners would be concession stand hot dogs and the Hilton hotel chain would start reserving a permanent room for me in every city in the Midwest.
Luckily, our children have gravitated towards different sports so we’re able to avoid a worst-case scheduling scenario and spread out our game-watching through different sports seasons. Even so, during soccer season we do find ourselves sometimes needing to be three places at once. Grandparents are recruited, car seats are swapped, and we fan out across the metro area to various soccer fields. At this point, I know every field within a 30-mile radius.
We have carefully curated rules to keep it all reasonable. When the season is over, it’s over. If the kids want to keep playing soccer, they have to get their friends together and start a game at the park. We also limit their participation to recreational teams with local travel itineraries only. The one exception is our eldest daughter who is almost driving age and has the motivation and talent to be a very good volleyball player. Even with her, though, we currently limit her to a team that doesn’t max out the travel schedule.
I really do value organized sports — it’s good for our kids to discipline themselves mentally and physically. They need the challenge. It’s good for them to learn to listen to a coach and follow instructions. It’s even good for them to get into some high-pressure game situations, maybe even to end up on the losing side of that situation and learn to cope with the disappointment. The kids are proud of their uniforms and proud of being on a team. We’ve seen them grow tremendously through athletics.
At the same time, I can’t help but remember that much of my athletic development and some of my fondest memories from childhood are from playing unorganized sports. We made up random games in the backyard and drafted our own rulebook, played roller hockey on the tennis courts until the park ranger chased us away, and intense games of touch football that only ended when the sun went down and we couldn’t see the ball anymore.
With no adult referee, our games involved a heavy dose of arguing about who fouled who or whether a pitch was a ball or strike. No authoritative person was there to sort it out, so we either managed to come to an agreement as equals or the game would be over. There’s tremendous value in learning the fine arts of negotiation, inventiveness, and self-organized play. I don’t want to deprive my children of that opportunity by over-scheduling them.
My wife and I promised ourselves we would resist the pressure to over-schedule, to feel like our kids have to play on the best, most expensive, most serious teams. It’s funny, while it’s very much true that the Catholic Church loves families and parenthood, it’s also true that if we aren’t careful, parenting becomes an occasion of pride.
Every parent thinks his kid is the smartest, most athletic, most talented kid around. It can seem negligent to not have our kids in every possible enrichment activity and pay whatever cost to get them on the best teams. It almost feels like letting them down that we don’t.
However, while kids in other families may be getting more athletic opportunities than mine are, I notice that those children seem to be stressed and already burning out on sports. The game has become a duty to them. Many of them would probably be happy to be given more free time to play in the creek with friends, eat a real family dinner a few nights a week, or read a book. Many would simply like to play a game for the sake of enjoying it. Childhood is a precious gift, those few years to simply play for the sake of play, and I don’t want to take that away from my kids.
Every family is different. Some kids thrive on an intense schedule of high-pressure sports because that’s what they love. Other kids have no interest in sports whatsoever. Some families have fewer children and more time and money to invest in organized activities, while others are bigger and have to make different choices.
What I’m trying to keep in mind is that my parenting decisions need to be firmly rooted in what’s best for my children, and not so I can brag to my friends about the travel team my daughter is on. The key is listening to my kids and allowing their motivations and passions to lead to what sports they play, if any.
Parenting is a great blessing not because of activities and accomplishments but because parents are privileged to nurture the development of unique, individual little humans who are exploring and growing into their own unique, individual hopes and dreams. Those dreams may not involve becoming a professional soccer player, but whatever they are, I’m sure they’ll be wonderful.