“Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them – work, family, health, friends and spirit – and you’re keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls – family, health, friends and spirit – are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for balance in your life.” – Brian Dyson, Former CEO of Coca-Cola


As I reflect upon many of the conversations I have had over the year as a soccer coach and club director, most of them in one way or another ask the simple question “How do I balance sports and life?” In other words, how do I juggle these five balls that Dyson mentions above. This is especially true when it comes to balancing the needs of your young athletes with the needs of your family, your work, and your other relationships.

It is easy to get caught up in the hoopla, the massive commitments and the mythology that surrounds youth sports. When we do, we lose sight of the things that really matter. We lose sight of the fact that our athletes can be irrevocably damaged by our actions and words as parents and coaches, however well-intentioned those actions and words may be.

To damage or destroy your relationship with a child over the result of a game, or the choice of sport or team, may be the worst mistake one can ever make. Yet it happens all the time.

So, as we step into a new year, here are a few thoughts that will keep you grounded, keep your priorities straight, and help to keep all those balls you are juggling in the air:

1 – Raising a child, whether they are an athlete or not, is akin to designing and building your child’s long-term infrastructure, as if you were building a house. If you are only building for the short term, you are not worried about things like the foundation, wall strength, or ceiling beams – only first impressions and curb appeal. But if you are building it to last for 70 years, you want a sturdy foundation, strong walls and a well-built roof. We need to think of parenthood in the same way.

2 – If we are building a solid emotional and moral foundation for our children, we must think long-term. We must think beyond single games or three-month seasons. Focusing on winning and short term success prior to high school is curb appeal; proper athletic and personal development creates both an athlete and a person built to last. When we think about the long haul, we realize that the purpose of youth sports is not only to develop better athletes but better people. Sports help children build the foundation for becoming a quality adult both on and off the field. Children form their self-image through what they hear said to them and about them. We need to make sure the messages they receive enhance one of the values above, or other values that are important. We need to make sure they are in an environment where these things are not only taught but exemplified by the coaches, the teachers, and the adults charged with educating them.

3 – According to the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethical Education, research shows that kids play sports for the following reasons:

  • To have fun (always No. 1)
  • To do something I am good at
  • To improve my skills
  • To get exercise and stay in shape
  • To be part of a team
  • The excitement of competition

They do not play to win. They like to win, they enjoy competing, but they do not play to win. They play to have fun, to be with their friends, to feel good about themselves, and because it is exciting. Yet how often do we pick and choose our kids’ sports team because it is the winning team, the winning coach, the defending champion, and assume that because of all the wins everything else just happens? We look at wins and losses and fail to search for happy faces and proper developmental environments.

4 – The sad statistics indicate that while only three to five percent of high school athletes even play in college, an even smaller number receive athletic financial aid. About one in 1,000 high school athletes receives a college scholarship (most of them only partial), and about one in 13,000 ever becomes a professional. Unfortunately, even in the face of those numbers, between 30 and 50 percent of youth sports parents believe their child is good enough to get a scholarship. This reality distortion is one of the effects of a youth sports culture that promises the latest bat, the newest shoe, or the most elite camp will have college coaches knocking down your door with a big check in hand.

5 – At some point you need to decide what side you are on. Are you about doing what is best for your kids, or promoting the status quo? If we are going to move the bar and change the culture of youth sports, we must not be naïve about the challenges we are facing, both on and off the field. The status quo is well-funded, entrenched, and has convinced many parents to accept the new reality of youth sports. Their products may be fantastic and give great value to players and families. The products are not the problem, nor are the people behind them. It is the culture in general, and we all bear some responsibility for that unless we do something to change it.

I certainly do not sit here and say I know better than you what is best for your son or daughter. I do not claim to know how to coach your team better than you do.

I do know that three out of four kids are quitting sports by middle school. I do know that most of them say they quit because adult values, such as the emphasis on winning, lack of playing time and excessive criticism and yelling, have taken the fun out of sports.

I also know that most adults have only the best of intentions when it comes to raising young athletes. We want them to succeed, we want them to perform their best, and we want them to have fun.

+READ: Five rules youth soccer parents get wrong at every game

Unfortunately, what happens in most youth sports organizations on a daily basis does not lead to this. It leads to dropout and disenchantment. It leads to the ‘family’ ball being dropped, and children’s self-esteem and relationships being damaged and destroyed. This is what must change.

In the year ahead, keep these five foundational thoughts in mind. Think long-term and build a solid infrastructure. Use sports to develop better players and better people. Ask your kids why they play, and make sure sports has that in abundance. Forget about a financial return on your investment, and make sure the return is a high-quality individual with core values that will last a lifetime.

And last, but not least, choose a side. If you believe that youth sports exists to serve the kids, then take a stand, and pass good information on. Demand a sports environment based upon the best science, psychology, and research. Find coaches who understand kids, and are not serving their own egos first. Educate yourself, and pass that information onto other parents. Ask your clubs and schools to provide parent education so that you may help your athlete, instead of being shut out of the process.

No one person can change the culture of youth sports in our country. But many individuals committed to serving their own children, and changing the game in their own community, certainly can.

As the great environmentalist Carl Safina writes, “But one does not wait for a revolution. One becomes it.”