When my daughter began playing recreational soccer at age 8, scouts for more competitive private clubs showed up regularly at the weekend games. By the season's end, one scout had actually "signed" the team's star player - a far more serious soccer experience that involved twice-weekly practices, a 14-game season at venues up to 50 miles away, and weekend tournaments of four or five games each.
The girls on the team were also required to sign a commitment barring them from playing other sports that would get in the way. Improving skill, technique, and sportsmanship were all important in the club world, but so was winning, which was the only way for a team to move up a four-level league hierarchy, from Bronze to Gold. Over the next few years, more and more of my daughter's teammates "went club." By the time my daughter joined them at 12, the club's director noted that she'd "started late."
Between 30 million and 45 million American kids participate in some form of athletics each year. With fewer parents comfortable letting their children play outside unsupervised, it's no wonder that organized youth sports are more popular than ever. But that world has changed in troubling ways. Not only are players joining competitive leagues at ever younger ages, more and more of them are choosing to specialize, focus, and train intensively in only one sport. In 2009, for instance, the U.S. Kids Golf World Championship featured a category for boys under 6, the Amateur Athletic Union sponsored a national basketball championship for boys and girls under 8, the NCAA lowered the year at which a player could be considered a basketball "prospect" to seventh grade, and a 4-year-old tennis "prodigy" - Mia Lines - moved from Australia to south Florida to work with a professional coach.
These stories repeat in smaller, local ways across the nation, where 7- and 8-year-olds join year-round "travel teams," special kicking, batting, and running "coaches" advertise their services to parents of young players, and "sports gyms" offer youth programs "scientifically designed to improve speed, power, and agility." And there's no need to take time off between seasons: Thousands of camps offer hockey, lacrosse, soccer, volleyball, baseball, football, and basketball players - as well as swimmers, runners, and wrestlers - the chance to spend school breaks working on their skills. Although these camps can be a godsend to working parents, there's something disturbing about this trend: Don't athletes need some downtime just to be kids, too?
"What we're seeing is the 'professionalization' of youth sports," says Daniel Gould, Ph.D., director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University. And, says former NBA player Bob Bigelow, this new world has one overriding belief system: "Getting better means training younger, training harder, training more."
But there are two big problems with this philosophy: It's a myth. And it's really bad for the kids.