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Let kids be kids; not little pro athletes

A couple of decades ago, being involved in sports meant playing football in the backyard,  pick-up basketball games or baseball with whatever you could find for bases and foul lines that depended on certain trees.

Kids played football in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball or softball in the spring. Kids switched it up and sports was just fun and games. 

The trend now is for kids to specialize in one certain sport in the hopes of garnering a college scholarship. All kids dream of being discovered by a pro scout; the difference is that now it’s the parents dreaming for the kids (and spending and driving and reordering lives) to make it more likely to happen.

Kids are starting at younger ages, joining travel sports teams as early as middle school, seeking higher-level competition so they can get better at their chosen sport. Rec. leagues alone don’t cut it if you think you are raising the next John Smoltz.

Time magazine last year reported that “kids of all skill levels, in virtually every team sport, are getting swept up by a youth sports economy that increasingly resembles the pros at increasingly early ages.” Kids sports leagues, the magazine said, has turned into a $15 billion industry. 

Neighborhood little leagues, town recreation departments and church basketball squads whose goals are to bond kids together, make friends and have fun, have fallen to the wayside. Privatized team clubs have nudged them aside to eat up the money and time of athletes and their families. Fees for many travel teams cost more than a month’s house payment not to mention the cost of traveling to different towns, and occasionally other states, for competition. 

At some point, it becomes simply too much time, money and effort devoted to turning a 12-year-old into a sports machine.

Quarterback great Tom Brady only started playing football as a freshman in high school. When he was a kid, he said, “There were no travel teams. My parents always exposed us to different things, different sports. It was basketball when it was basketball season. It was baseball when it was baseball season. I played a lot of soccer. There were some camps, but I just played in the neighborhood on our street with all the kids we grew up with. I’m experiencing it with my own kids (now) with all the organized activities that you put them in. It’s just hard, because all the parents are doing it, it seems, and the competition feels like it starts so early for these kids.” 

Parents want to be supportive of their kids - some going as far as working a second or third job to pay for the travel and fees that allow their kids to play on these teams - and are to be commended for all they sacrifice. Some families spend more than 10 percent of their income on registration fees, travel, camps and equipment, according to Time. The child’s sport pursuit becomes the all-consuming determination of what the family does.

From the craziness of family life revolving around a 13-year-old’s sporting event, the financial obligations, the excessive competition, and simply the burnout factor, Tom Brady is right (as much as we hate to admit it): Let student athletes enjoy their childhood years with all kinds of sports in a fun, backyard environment. 

The chance of a pro career is unlikely and childhood only comes once -- value the time you have with your kids.