Fifty years ago, kids played sports with friends, unsupervised by adults. Today, the sandlot has been replaced by tryout-based, multiseason travel teams for kids as young as 6 years old.
TD Ameritrade estimates that 63 percent of American families whose children play sports spend between $100 and $500 per child per month on youth sports. Twenty percent spend more than $12,000 a year. Two-thirds of parents hope their investments will lead to athletic scholarships.
At their best, travel teams form nurturing communities in which kids hone their skills in supportive environments.
However, travel teams are best suited to small, affluent, intact families. A survey by i9 Sports, a youth sports league franchise, found that in most households, travel sports cause marital battles and financial strains. Sixty-five percent of moms say their kids’ sports schedules interfere with their jobs. Twenty-four percent of moms say they resent their kids’ sports commitments.
Travel sports stress players as well. The more miles parents travel, the more money they spend, the more they demand from their kids. Fred Engh, founder of the National Alliance for Youth Sports, writes that parents “behave as if they are watching the Final Four, World Series, and Super Bowl all rolled up into one.”
At the ballpark, parents sometimes have engaged in verbal and physical abuse. There is also a trend of parents suing coaches for benching their children during games, thereby depriving them of the chance to pursue college scholarships. University of Connecticut men’s soccer coach Ray Reid said he is appalled by the attitude that “your son is a mutual fund!”
Intensive training has led to a spike in injuries. Today, most Tommy John tendon surgeries in the United States are performed on patients ages 15 to 19. These types of injuries were unheard of a generation ago.
While overuse epidemics plague club sports, lower-income kids are shut out of club sports. Sports participation for youth in households with incomes under $25,000 is 16 percent. For youth from wealthier homes ($100,000 plus), it is 30 percent. A 15-year study of travel teams by University of Nebraska researcher David Ogden found that only 4 percent of players on traveling youth teams are African American.
Isha Hamilton teaches physical education at Edmund W. Miles Middle School in Amityville, where 67 percent of the students are from low-income families and obesity rates run as high as 70 percent. She told me that some of her most talented students are unable to play club sports because of league fees.
Without rigorous physical activity, kids are at heightened risk of diabetes, heart disease, strokes, and depression. By 2030, the combined medical costs for treating obesity-related diseases are expected to be $66 billion a year, with a loss of productivity of $580 billion annually.
To widen the range of options for kids to play sports, we need to revitalize local teams that have folded as energy and talent were diverted into travel teams. Community centers, churches, and schools also need to recreate the sandlot experience by setting aside time for pickup games at fields and gyms.
Community leaders who have adopted the sandlot approach have been delighted with the results. On Tuesday nights in Edmond, Oklahoma, league coaches turn their fields over to “disorganized baseball.” They provide equipment and loose supervision, but kids choose teams and play pickup. In Methuen, Massachusetts, the town recreation department recruited players with the catchphrase, “No parents, no coaches, no cost.” After Phoenix kept its recreational facilities open until 2 a.m., reports of juvenile crime dropped by 55 percent.
Robert Carle is a professor of theology at The King’s College in Manhattan.