Mac Engel

Youth sports epidemic can’t deliver desired results

A doting dad and a loving parent, Troy wanted to see his son play baseball and give him every chance to excel. But he was suddenly faced with a problem.

The team’s coach insisted Troy’s son sign a contract that stated he would play only baseball and forgo every other sport.

He was 7.

The coach of that team should be flogged. Unfortunately, this is not a rare instance.

Such is the norm among an increasing number of youth sports leagues that oversell and under-deliver while the coaches and organizers cash in.

If the goal is to have your kid play as many sports as possible, fine. If the goal is a scholarship? You are getting played. You are the suckers.

Stop it. Now. Let your kid play as many sports as possible. If a scholarship or financial aid for college is the priority, emphasize school over ball.

The 3.5 GPA has a much better chance of securing a scholarship than the .335 batting average.

But our sports-mad culture has successfully cultivated and marketed the idea that the only way your kid is going to be good in sports is to participate in and pay for traveling squads and year-round sports. It’s troubling and pathetic.

The concept of a youth select team is nuts. Why are we selecting 8-year-olds? Why is there a draft? Has anyone stopped to ask why a little kid is playing more baseball games in a calendar year than a major leaguer?

It’s called youth sports for a reason. Too often it’s the youth sports’ coach who fulfills his ego by watching a soccer team of 7-year-old girls win a trophy that the kid will soon forget and store at the bottom of her closet.

A personal anecdote: I called the athletic director of an NCAA Division I program to ask if the odds of our daughter landing an athletic scholarship were better than landing an academic scholarship.

The premise was: If our daughter spends the same amount of time kicking a soccer ball as she did, say, learning a second language, which would be more helpful to land financial assistance for college?

“Let me put it this way,” the AD told me, “our kids only play one sport, and that’s because it’s mandated by the school.”

The AD’s point to me is sports are wonderful and stuffed with life-lesson positives, and they do look good on a résumé or a college application, but they aren’t worth as much as smarts.

The data is overwhelmingly in favor of the high school student landing a scholarship with a 3.5 GPA and an ACT score near 30.

The data is terrible as far as landing an athletic scholarship.

According to the NCAA, a girls high school basketball player has a 3.9 percent of just participating on a college team. The high school baseball player has a 7.1 percent chance of being on an NCAA team.

These aren’t scholarship numbers, merely participation figures.

In men’s sports, only FBS football players and Division I basketball players can expect a full scholarship. In other sports, there aren’t enough full scholarships for everyone on the team, so coaches may split them up. It could be one-fourth. It could be one-tenth. And at Division III schools, there are no scholarships and the crowds are in the dozens.

Also, NCAA scholarships are one-year contracts renewable at season’s end, and they can change based on an array of variables. Although an increasing number of schools are guaranteeing the scholarships for four years, that is not the majority.

Despite these statistics and odds, youth sports grows with coaches selling a message that they cannot deliver. They do so because the job can be lucrative — and it’s fun to coach sports.

Meanwhile, renowned sports orthopedic surgeons, most notably Dr. James Andrews, have seen nothing but a continued rise in injuries to young athletes that should belong to 28-year-olds. Not to mention increased fatigue and burnout.

What is the well-meaning parent who simply wants the best for their kid to do?

Let ’em play. If your kid is good enough, he or she will be discovered.

“When I was younger I had a coach who said it best: ‘Right now you are an athlete who plays soccer, but I want you to become a soccer player who is also an athlete,” FC Dallas defender Walker Zimmerman told me. “By playing other sports I was able to gain something that other people who play just one sport don’t gain.

“I waited to play just soccer until right before high school, and that was my decision. ... It has to be, or the kid is going to resent it and get burned out. But I do know it’s harder now to do that.”

Just like everything else in parenting, we are all guessing and praying our efforts will yield a normal, content person who positively contributes to society.

As my late father-in-law once told me, “No one knows what they’re doing.”

This includes youth sports, where too many well-meaning people are being suckered in and sold something these teams, coaches, and leagues cannot possibly deliver. Such offerings are well out of their control.

There are no such guarantees, of course, but the best play for such a high reward is through the books rather than ball.

Mac Engel: @macengelprof

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