Costs are skyrocketing, rankings are an obsession, and every contest is a judgment on some kid’s future. Lost is the spirit of playing for now. Every year, parents pull their kids out of sports in protest. And every year, even more new families step forward, willing to play the game.
The more parents spent, the more the kids seemed to feel the pressure of doing well for Mom and Dad.
Dr. Travis Dorsch
Utah State University professor and former NFL player who conducted a study showing that the more parents pay for club sports, the more the kids perceive it as pressure.
But there is hope. Aided by data-gathering platforms, governing bodies at the local, regional and national levels can crack down on exploitation of eager athletes and their ambitious parents. Performance-sensor data tracking will inject desperately needed realism, laying bare the snake oil dreams sold by youth sports profiteers.
A 6’2″ point guard from Columbia, South Carolina, named Seventh Woods recently committed to the University of North Carolina. But that was not his coming-out party. That happened years ago—when he was 14 years old, and the YouTube channel Hoop- MixTape released his highlight clips. His mixtape was viewed 14 million times. Andrew Wiggins was only 13 when he hit fame. Forget waiting until they reach college to declare the next superstar—the internet doesn’t even wait until a kid hits high school.
New Path to Stardom
VIEWS OF MIDDLE SCHOOLER SEVENTH WOODS’ HIGHLIGHTS MIXTAPE
Almost every sport in America is losing youth players, even though the percent- age of US teens playing some form of high school sports is holding steady at 75%. How can that be? Under pressure to specialize in one sport earlier, kids increasingly have stopped playing their second sport—despite clear science that shows kids who focus on one sport are the most likely to quit.
Over 30 million kids. Over 14,000 youth leagues and clubs. It adds up to over
$9 billion annually. Most of that money is flowing through sleepy nonprofits overseen by volunteer parents with lax controls. Most of the money ends up in the pockets of youth club coaches—who are financially incentivized to preach to parents that Johnny’s got potential.
The New York Times reports that prosecutions for embezzlement have become increasingly common, citing examples of hundreds of thousands of dollars being stolen in Washington, Minnesota, New Jersey, Michigan, Maine, Wisconsin and Vermont by youth club treasurers and officers.
Where there’s money, there are lawsuits. A mom in Virginia sued her daughter’s volleyball club after her daughter was benched. When his son was cut from the track team, a dad in Philadelphia sued—for $40 million. And a Dallas-area dad filed racketeering charges against local lacrosse coaches, accusing them of using their leverage to force players to attend expensive camps.
It institutionalizes mass rejection of young people.
British soccer journalist and author of Every Boy’s Dream
An estimated 10,000 players are in the Premier League’s youth academies, signed as early as age 8. Only 1 out of 100 will make it.
Costs of playing are ever rising— between specialized coaches and tournament travel—and the newest expense parents feel they have to fork over for is the video library of your child’s highlights. It starts with the absurd rankings of every competitive youth team, from age 10 and up. By age 12, websites are tracking individual players, purporting to spot the stars of the future. Sites like MaxPreps, Hudl and Top Drawer just feed the fear that you’re falling behind if you’re not yet visible.
EXHIBIT A: JOSH MCKENZIE, NEW JERSEY
At a cost of $15,000 worked with 10 specialized trainers—a mind-set coach, an isokinetic performance trainer, a nutritionist, 3 sprinting specialists and a powerlifting guru.
Even though he had straight A’s and a 98.72 average, Josh repeated 8th grade to engineer an advantage in high school.
Hangs on inversion table at night to increase his height—because he is 3 inches short of 6 feet.
Records every crumb of food he consumes. Eats exactly 4,500 calories and 175 grams of protein each day.
Ranked #1 in the nation as both football player and wrestler in middle school. Rushed for
35 touchdowns en route to middle school national semifinals in Orlando.
Makes the 90-minute commute to Bergen Catholic High School daily.
With the best will in the world, I wouldn’t know if a 6-, 7- or 8-year-old is going to play in the Premier League in 10 or 12 years’ time. It’s ludicrous.
Aston Villa Youth Academy director
HOW IT GETS BETTER
In 20 years, when we look back at how the slide into society-wide youth sports obsession, burnout and malaise was averted, the story will be something like this:
PROTECTIONS BY GOVERNING BODIES
Regional, national and international sports’ governing bodies will follow the lead of gymnastics, figure skating and tennis, which have enacted strict rules protecting underage players.
Charged to protect young athletes’ bones, bodies and minds from the mental stress and pressure of competing,
in 1997 the Olympic Games raised the minimum age for gymnasts to 16. At the next Summer Games, Dong Fangxiao (People’s Republic of China) won the bronze medal, but her medal was revoked and her records expunged after it was discovered she was only 14 at the time.
In 1990, when she was just 13, tennis phenom Jennifer Capriati made the finals of a WTA event. By the age of 14, she was ranked #6 in the world and seemed well on her way to becoming the next great American female player. But by age 17, Capriati had burned out and dropped out. Tennis had learned its lesson. Ever since, rules restrict the number of events teens can play in. Studies since then have shown that age limits have paid off in real terms, extending female tennis players’ careers by 24%.
FOR YOUTH TRAFFICKING
European Soccer—the worst offender—has stopped trafficking in children. Barcelona and Real Madrid were made to pay.
In 2001, FIFA began regulations for the protections of minors. At first, players under age 16 were forbidden from being sold—but it wasn’t enforced as long as both clubs were mutually agreeable. Stories of kids being signed at ages 7 to 11 were rampant. But a few years ago, FIFA’s subcommittee finally put teeth to the rule. Players in Europe could transfer at age 16. Elsewhere,
it was forbidden until age 18. First Barcelona, then Real Madrid, were handed transfer bans; and over a dozen youth players they had signed from Asia, Africa and the Americas—including two boys from California—were forbidden to play for the Spanish clubs’ youth academies. Most boys eventually returned home.
There is a way around the rule—secure citizenship in the desired country, often through family heritage, such as the USMNT’s 17-year-old striker Christian Pulisic—but, by and large, the era of buying and selling of youth players across national borders has ended.
WITH VIOLATION CONSEQUENCES
High schools and colleges will impose strict time limits on practicing and playing, with serious consequences for violations.
San Diego State, Ball State and Michigan are among the universities penalized for going over the 20-hours-a-week college time limit. Teams have been placed on probation and compliance staff have been fired for failing to enforce the restrictions.
High school athletes are generally limited to 18 hours a week—including practices and games. However, the enforcement mechanisms are still weak at this level.
These limits are consistent with the hourly training counts that swimmers, cyclists and youth soccer academies hold to. Only ballet dancers radically exceed them (25 hours/week).
OF ENFORCEMENT ARE IN A PHASE OF RAPID DEVELOPMENT.
Over the next decade, organizations at every level—professional leagues, player associations, the NCAA and national sports federations that oversee youth sports— will pass stricter rules to protect young athletes. Ubiquitous sensor- fed training apps will enable regulators to efficiently monitor young athletes’ activity levels at a scale never before possible. At the same time, technology will elevate the level of youth sports performance across the board in two important ways:
Thanks to sensor-generated performance data and analytics once available only to elite athletes, previously undetected diamonds in the rough will rise through the youth ranks on the strength of their abilities instead of the persuasive powers of pushy parents.
The tsunami of sports video captured on mobile devices and shared on YouTube will continue to drive the accelerating feedback cycle where developing athletes view, process and emulate the world’s best performances 24-7.