O’Sullivan: The race to nowhere in youth sports

JohnOSullivan-Header“My 4th grader tried to play basketball and soccer last year,” a mom recently told me as we sat around the dinner table after one of my speaking engagements. “It was a nightmare. My son kept getting yelled at by both coaches as we left one game early to race to a game in the other sport. He hated it.”

“I know,” said another. “My 10-year-old daughter’s soccer coach told her she had to pick one sport, and start doing additional private training on the side, or he would give away her spot on the team.”

So goes the all-too-common narrative for American youth these days, an adult-driven, hyper-competitive race to the top in both academics and athletics that serves the needs of the adults, but rarely the kids. As movies such as “The Race to Nowhere” and recent articles such as this one from the Washington Post point out, while the race has a few winners, the course is littered with the scarred psyches of its participants. We have a generation of children that have been pushed to achieve parental dreams instead of their own, and prodded to do more, more, more and better, better, better. The pressure and anxiety is stealing one thing our kids will never get back: their childhood.

The movie and article mentioned above, as well as the book “The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids,” highlight the dangerous path we have led our children down in academics. We are leading them down a similar path in sports as well.

The path is a race to nowhere, and it does not produce better athletes. It produces bitter athletes who get hurt, burn out and quit sports altogether.

As I said to my wife recently, the hardest thing about raising two kids these days, when it comes to sports, is that the vast majority of the parents are leading their kids down the wrong path, but not intentionally or because they want to harm their kids. They love their kids, but the social pressure to follow that path is incredible. Even though my wife and I were collegiate athletes, and I spend every day reading the research, and studying the latest science on the subject, the pressure is immense. The social pressure is like having a conversation with a pathological liar; he is so good at lying that even when you know the truth, you start to doubt it.  Yet that is the sport path many parents are following.

The reason? FEAR!

We are so scared that if we do not have our child specialize, if we do not get the extra coaching, or give up our entire family life for youth sports, our child will get left behind. Even though nearly every single parent I speak to tells me that in their gut they have this feeling that running their child ragged is not helpful, they do not see an alternative. Another kid will take his place.  He won’t get to play for the best coach.

“I know he wants to go on the family camping trip,” they say, “but he will just have to miss it again, or the other kids will get ahead of him.”

This system sucks.

It sucks for parents, many of whom do not have the time and resources to keep one child in such a system, never mind multiple athletes. There are no more family trips or dinners, no time or money to take a vacation. It causes parents untold stress and anxiety, as they are made to feel guilty by coaches and their peers if they don’t step in line with everyone else.

“You are cheating your kid out of a scholarship” they are told, “They may never get this chance again.”

It sucks for coaches who want to develop athletes for long-term excellence, instead of short-term success. The best coaches used to be able to develop not only better athletes, but better people, yet it is getting hard to be that type of coach. There are so many coaches who have walked away from sports because while they encourage kids to play multiple sports, other unscrupulous coaches scoop those kids up, and tell them “if you really want to be a player, you need to play one sport year-round. That other club is short-changing your kid, they are not competitive.”

The coach who does it right gives his kids a season off, and next thing you know he no longer has a team.

[ +Our Biggest Mistake: Talent selection instead of talent identification ]

And yes, most importantly, it sucks for the kids. Any sports scientist or psychologist will tell you that in order to pursue any achievement activity for the long term, children need ownership, enjoyment and intrinsic motivation.  Without these three things, an athlete is very likely to quit.

Jeff Cup girls 4

Children need first and foremost to enjoy their sport. This is the essence of being a child. Kids are focused in the present, and do not think of long term goals and ambitions. But adults do. They see “the opportunities I never had” or “the coaching I wish I had” as they push their kids to their goals and not those of the kids.

They forget to give their kids the one thing they did have: A CHILDHOOD! They forget to give them the ability to find things they are passionate about, instead of choosing for them. They forget that a far different path worked pretty darn well for them.

So why this massive movement, one that defies all science and psychology, to change it?

We need to wise up and find a better path.

Parents, start demanding sports clubs and coaches that allow your kids to participate in many sports. You are the customers, you are paying the bills, so you might as well start buying a product worth paying for. You have science on your side, and you have Long-Term Athletic Development best practices on your side. Your kids do not deserve or need participation medals and trophies, as some of you are so fond of saying, but they do deserve a better, more diverse youth sports experience.

Coaches, you need to wise up as well. You are the gatekeepers of youth sports, the people whom play God, and decide who gets in, and who is kicked to the curb. You know the incredible influence of sport in your life, so stop denying it to so many others. Are you so worried about your coaching ability, or about the quality of the sport you love, to think that if you do not force kids to commit early they will leave? Please realize that if you are an amazing coach with your priorities in order, and you teach a beautiful game well, that kids will flock to you in droves, not because they have to, but because they want to!

Every time you ask a nine-year-old to choose one sport over another you are diminishing participation in the sport you love by 50 percent. WHY?

To change this we must overcome the fear, the guilt and the shame.

[ +When should my child specialize in one sport? ]

We are not bad parents if our kids don’t get into Harvard, and we are not bad parents if they do not get a scholarship to play sports in college. We should not feel shame or guilt every time our kid does not keep up with the Joneses, because, when it comes to sports, the Joneses are wrong.

As this recent article from USA Lacrosse stated, college coaches are actually looking to multi-sport athletes in recruiting. Why? Because they have an upside, they are better all-around athletes, they are not done developing and they are less likely to burn out.

You cannot make a kid into something she is not by forcing them into a sport at a very young age, and pursuing your goals and not your child’s goals. Things like motivation, grit, genetics and enjoyment have too much say in the matter.

What you can do, though, is rob a child of the opportunity to be a child, to play freely, to explore sports of interest, to learn to love sports and become active for life.

Chances are great that your children will be done with sports by high school, as only a select few play in college and beyond. Even the elite players are done at an age when they have over half their life ahead of them. It is not athletic ability, but the lessons learned from sport that need to last a lifetime.

Why not expose them to as many of those lifelong lessons as possible?

Why not take a stand?

Why don’t we stop being sheep, following the other sheep down a road to nowhere that both science and common sense tells us often ends badly?

It is time to stop being scared, and stand up for your kids. Read a book on the subject, pass on this article to like minded people, bring in a speaker to your club and school, but do something to galvanize people to act.

There are more of us who want to do right by the kids than there are those whose egos and wallets have created our current path. We have just been too quite for too long. We have been afraid to speak up, and afraid to take a stand. We are far too willing to throw away our child’s present for some ill-fated quest for a better future that rarely materializes, and is often filled with so much baggage that we would never wish for such a future for our kids.

If you think your child will thank you for that, then you probably stopped reading a while ago.

But if you want to get off the road to nowhere in youth sports, and to stop feeling guilty about it, then please know you are not alone. Our voice is growing stronger everyday. We can create a new reality, with new expectations that put the athletes first.

We can put our children on a road to somewhere, one paved with balanced childhoods, exploration, enjoyment and yes, multiple sports.

Someday our kids will thank us.

By | April 2, 2014 | 8 Comments | Tags: , ,


  1. soccerdad says:

    What a great article. For most, elite youth sports have become a race to nowhere. Kids are showcasing their talent from very young ages, which means the “me first” attitude kicks in and there is little in the way of life lessons and learning how to be on a true team. I watch lots of college sports, and see this carried forward — “me first” showcasing rather than we are all in this together, and much less team fight and spirit. The kids don’t know what they are missing.
    It is also sad that so many blow off the high school team. The ones who play usually remember the high school experience as the most fun, even if the competition is mediocre. There’s nothing like playing with friends and having classmates and friends cheering in the stands. The elite club mantra that high school will get you nowhere is so short-sighted and usually not in the best interest of the kids. If the Academies want to eliminate the opportunity to play high school, then the number of academies should be limited (maybe one or two per metro area) so that they truly attract only those on their way to high level soccer and professional ranks.
    My sons are in college and played elite travel and high school sports. My elite soccer player now plays club in college and loves it because of the freedom he has and still gets to enjoy the game. He did like elite travel soccer, but the pressure was way too intense at such a young age and he turned it down a notch in high school so he could hang with friends, do well in school, and have more balance. His coach from 8-15, was very nice but obviously had lots of unfulfilled dreams from when he played and treated the kids like college players. I remember one time, when my son was 11, he had a couple of school tests and was stressed because he was behind on his studies (probably because he had spent hours juggling a ball in the backyard), asked if he could miss a practice, and the coach gave him a lecture about not missing practice and being better organized. He was captain of the team but after that was always intimidated to talk with the coach, and what message does that send about caring about the kid. He liked being on a good team, but hated the fact that many of the players were forced out from year to year so new recruits could come in. It took the joy of the team out of it for him. I sometimes can’t believe the difference between the spin that is put on club web sites and how the club teams actually operate.

    My kids travel sports days are over, but I do feel badly for most of the kids that are racing to nowhere. If you ask almost any elite club player that is 13, 14, 15, 16 if they want to play in college, after it has been drilled into them that that is the goal, of course they will say yes. They have no clue of the odds, the commitment once they get there, and all of the other parts of college life they will miss if they play high level college soccer. It is worth it for some, but not many.

    It is time to make it all about the kids. They are missing out.

  2. mom of a soccer/runner girl says:

    Thank you for your thought-provoking article. I would like to share our family experience so others can chart their own course. My daughter runs track and plays soccer. In elementary school, I let her try as many sports as I could. She fell into travel soccer and never looked back. In high school she picked up track to keep in shape for soccer. Initially, her club soccer coaches said she should not bother with track “unless she was going to win.” They told her to quit. Her soccer trainer encouraged her to run track. This man said, “Don’t let the soccer coaches write your story.”

    She won several state championships in the 800 and the 1600m. The club soccer coaches made some exceptions to the rules for her once she proved that she could balance both sports. Along the journey she was recruited by several D1 soccer programs. (She was a Region 1 ODP player on a club team that has gone to Nationals twice.) The college coaches looked at her track times as success and proof that she could handle the pressures of college athletics. Some coaches were willing to let her do both sports in college.

    Yes, she has had to make some choices to miss out on high school activities. I endure criticism from other parents on the team. Sometimes she didn’t study enough to make A’s, because there was not enough time in the day. Sometimes she has to rest and cannot practice as much as her competition. However, she has had fewer injuries now that she runs and plays soccer. She chose to do both sports, so she owns the decision, for better or for worse.

    Her final college choice was a place where she could learn, play soccer, have fun and maybe run track.(in that order) Again, she owned the decision and is still a motivated student and athlete in her junior year.

    My advice to parents is listen to your kids and let them try activities. You can help them achieve balance in all areas. Also, you never know how everything will come together at the end of the day. I never imagined how much track would help my daughter achieve success on the soccer field.

  3. John O'Sullivan says:

    Thanks for all the comments everyone, the post definitely strikes a nerve I know. As Western MD Coach says, and I agree, this situation is not everyone. of course many high level players derive enjoyment and direct their own goals for sports, I know I certainly did, and still do. I do have a unique perspective in that I do write and travel a lot to speak to clubs all over the US, and the things I write about may not happen in every team, but they do happen in every club. Is every parent uneducated? Of course not. Do many blindly follow what everyone else is doing? Definitely. The whole reason i founded the Changing the Game Project was to provide education to parents so that they could make educated decisions, they could understand how to give their kids autonomy and enjoyment, and they could see the great benefits that come from sports outside of collegiate participation.

    Thanks everyone for your great comments, and to Chris Reed for sharing a great personal story. I really do appreciate it!

  4. keeper63 says:

    I think soccer is the convenient target here because of the relatively large numbers of participants, especially in the DC area, and the fact that it is a sport that both girls and boys play.

    I agree that the odds are not in favor of D1 scholarships, especially for the boys. However, the playing field is tilted somewhat in favor of the girls by virtue of Title IX and other programs aimed at increasing female participation in collegiate athletics.

    So let’s look at the boys, because I have a son that plays soccer at the elite club level (CCL and ODP), and I see the situation first hand. I was also an elite club soccer and D1 college soccer player, and perhaps I have a different perspective than other soccer parents.

    Any parent who honestly thinks their son is “guaranteed” a full or partial D1 scholarship by virtue of the club or team they play for is extremely misguided. Even in the US Soccer Academy (arguably the top tier of boys club soccer in the US), on average, only 30 to 40% of those players end up in D1 programs, and only a fraction of those players will get a full scholarship. A fully-funded NCAA D1 men’s soccer program only has 9.5 scholarships, and rosters typically number between 25 and 30 players. So do the math…

    My son focused on soccer as his only sport because he is good at it, and enjoys playing at a higher level that challenges him. He starts as a freshman on his HS varsity team, but he also realizes that his club and ODP are where he will get the most visibility and opportunity, so HS is more for fun and social benefit. He would like to play in college but he also understands that the odds are not in his favor to get money from a D1 program, but perhaps he can walk-on at a decent D3 school, if that’s where his academic interests take him.

    I support his participation because of the positive life-lessons he gets from soccer. Traits like discipline, setting and achieving goals, teamwork, and being both a gracious winner and loser will serve him well in other parts of his life. Plus, he can stand on a street corner in just about any part of the world juggling a soccer ball, and he will have something in common with most of the people who live there.

    Yes, I have at times been the ugly soccer parent, throwing lots of time and money at soccer. But the goal was never to create a professional or even a D1 scholarship player, it was to help create a better person. And so far, I think we have succeeded in that goal, and soccer has played a large, positive role in that process.

  5. Western MD Soccer Coach says:

    I read this originally on Mr. O’Sullivan’s changing the game website and I considered responding there, but ended up writing a Thesis length reply so I thought better than to publish it. My struggle with this article is some of the underlying assumptions that are being made in the article. First, in my opinion, there is a significant difference between the type of academic pressure in the Post article, where the child is told that if they fail to get into an Ivy League school they are a failure, and the pressure that is focused around soccer players (let’s face it anyone in a club based sport), who are told they have to play soccer year round or they won’t get an athletic scholarship to a D-1 school. I have never heard a coach or parent tell a player their life would be ruined by “settling” for a scholarship (even a partial one) at a lower school. The second assumption that I struggle with is that the soccer parents are uneducated consumers. Maybe in the beginning, parents are undereducated about how the club system works, as most of us never went through anything similar when we were growing up, but I have found that most of us have become very highly educated consumers as we have had to pay out more and more money and commit more and more time. Most of the parents on the teams my daughter play on, are looking at soccer as another potential means to reduce the cost of college. If it gives you some extra money why not pursue it, as long as you keep an open mind about the reality of non-revenue sports in D-1 or D-2. Even if you go to a D-3 school, which doesn’t have athletic scholarships, you can still use soccer as a means of helping reduce the cost of education, becoming a graduate assistant will cover the tuition cost for the post graduate degrees, as well as opening doors to coach at the high school level. The third assumption is that players who are in the highly competitive environment and focusing on a single sport aren’t getting enjoyment and have ownership of their decision. It would be impossible to get a child to go to multiple hours per week of practice, games spread over geographically diverse area (some games here in DC are 2 to 3 hours away) and multiple tournaments without the children deriving some level of enjoyment and taking some ownership of the idea of participating in the activity. Is there a greater potential for burnout in highly competitive sports, absolutely, just like in any high intensity activity. While we are on the burnout topic, how does the burnout rate for highly competitive players in soccer compare with lacrosse, volleyball or other club based sports? Is soccer so much higher that we should be worried, or is it just because our perspective is the soccer window, as opposed to another sport, are we over exaggerating the situation? I honestly don’t know because I don’t have kids who play other club sports. Finally, I think it has become fashionable to demonize soccer clubs for advertising how many players who have gone through their system have played for colleges. Why? It is, at least in the DC area, a competitive landscape and these clubs are competing for your dollars, with not just other soccer clubs, but other sports, dance, martial arts, etc. If 40% of the players that play for a club during their high school years go on to play in college, why not brag about that. Schools brag about their graduation rates, and college acceptance rates. Colleges brag about their post graduation employment or graduate school acceptance rates, why shouldn’t club X do the same.

  6. soccermom#6 says:

    This topic is being milked in many different ways with multiple articles on the same/similar topic. I want to see some focus on “politics in sports”, “inexperienced/bad coaches ruining the love of the game for a player” etc. I am one of the soccer moms who is obsessed with sports, any sports. I want my kids to play sports, any sports. But they gravitated towards soccer and want to do nothing with other sports. Am I looking for them to play in college? Yes. Am I looking for full ride? Heck NO. I made sure I have saved for their college tuition and stressed academics are important and that soccer won’t put food on the table. This assumption that parents who push kids to play sports are looking for scholarships got to go. You play on a decent team, D2 and D3 colleges come knocking on the door with partial academic funds. Unfortunately, these colleges don’t have strong academic programs or majors that your child may want but an undergraduate degree partially paid for – why not?

  7. Chris reed says:

    I want to weigh in and echo – this is a great article! My only thought is that Mr. O’Sullivan did not go far enough to explain to parents how, in their quest to show their love for their children and “leave no stone unturned” on the path to athletic immortality, they are unwittingly contributing to their kids demise. Strong language – sure. But let me ask all you parents and coaches of Elite teams age U15 and under: what is your ultimate goal – your end game? To get your kids a “full ride” at a Division 1 school? For 99% of all the Elite players in the DC Region – our market area . . . that will never happen! And any Club coach who says anything to the contrary is either a liar or ignorant.
    To offer some bona fides, I am a fairly experienced soccer referee having done local and regional youth soccer tournaments, high school varsity matches, and last year was selected to be the Center for a high school State Championship. I have several children who I consider to have / had, successful soccer “careers.” My oldest, just this year, concluded her soccer career playing, on scholarship, in the ACC. So, allow me to use her as an example, since I believe her path is what many of you desire.
    Her Club team was the dominate team in the Region during her high school years, winning three State Cup Championships and was undefeated in Region 1 play for three years. From her sophomore year in high school through her senior year, her Club team was ranked from #1 to #6 in the Nation, depending on which ranking body you preferred. By any standard, this team was one of top teams in the United States for three consecutive years. There was one National Team player, several National Team Pool players, multiple ODP State, Region 1, All Met, All Region, All State players. I will interject, for perspective, that my daughter was one of these. So, parents . . . on this highly acclaimed, extremely successful, well-coached and well-trained team, a team that college coaches would come to watch PRACTICE (!), how many players do you think received a “full scholarship” to play in college?
    Most received in the 30%-60% range. A few received less and at least one – a player that went to UVa and was part of their successful season this year – received 0 dollars in Athletic Scholarship.
    So parents, let’s get back to your end game – what is it that you really want for your child? A “full ride” to the school of their choice? IF your Club team and player have achieved at least one of those above, I’d say you have at most, a 25% chance of being offered a full athletic scholarship. If none of the above . . . zero chance.
    I agree with Mr. O’Sullivan that many college coaches are looking for well-rounded athletes. The college landscape is littered with really good players who have burned-out on soccer before their 20th birthday.
    I believe it is unimportant, in fact, counter-productive, to concentrate on just one sport before high school. My daughter made her high school varsity basketball team as a freshman, even started some games – she really loved basketball, and it is a very complementary sport to soccer. It was not until the next year that we (and I mean WE) made the decision that soccer would be the one-and-only. It was the right decision, at the right time. She went on to be one of the three from her Club team who received a full athletic scholarship to play Division 1 soccer.
    We all want the best for our children and most will move mountains to pave the way. But consider, realistically, what they will be doing after their 21st birthday. You know, that NCAA commercial that states “95% of our athletes will turn pro in something other than the sport they’re playing” is 100% accurate!

  8. wasteoftime says:

    This is a great article and right on point. Unfortunately when you have a group of parents/players wake up, there is another line of them waiting to drink the koolaid. This is why you will continue to see the non-athlete make it to the top of the soccer heap. In this case, the culture has to change at the top. But I don’t see how you can do this when money/ego is involved. We continue to applaud and shower programs with accolades where coaches tell their players they can’t play other sports and train/play them into the ground year round. Why? because the team is successful and the players make it to Division 1 programs. How can you change the culture when our own state associations are awarding these coaches for their success?

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