Don’t Break a Sweat: How to Navigate Youth Sports

Notes from the Backpack

Episode 13 │Don’t Break a Sweat: How to Navigate Youth Sports

Tuesday, March 17, 2020



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Show Notes

Jon Solomon

With hyper-competitive leagues for kids as young as 6 years old—and hours of practice even during the off season—youth sports aren’t just fun and games. We talked with Jon Solomon, former sports journalist and editorial director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society program, about how families can best navigate this aspect of their kids’ lives. He offers advice for talking with tough coaches and helping your child find balance between athletics and academics.


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LaWanda: Welcome to another episode of Notes From The Backpack, a PTA podcast. I'm your cohost, Lawanda Toney, Director of Strategic Communication at National PTA.

Helen: And I'm Helen Westmoreland, Director of Family Engagement at National PTA. This week's topic is a little different cause today we're talking sports. It's a new era and the soccer mom stereotype is fading. These days our schedules are filled with dropping our kids off at sports practice during the week and attending games on the weekends. It can be exhausting, but we do it because our kids love the game. Or do they? We all have seen the overzealous parents who take sports competitions a little too far. But how does that affect our kids?

LaWanda: Years ago, high school sports were the only highly competitive sports our kids were playing. But now there's so many types of sport leagues from boys and girls clubs to rec leagues, to all-star teams. Kids of all ages are now participating in competitive sports and there is so much pressure put on our kids to do well.

It may come from the coaches, the parents, or even the child themselves. How does that affect their academics? Are we putting too much pressure on our kids to excel in sports versus just letting them play the game.

In today's episode, we'll address these topics and more by talking to Jon Solomon.

Helen: Jon is the Editorial Director of the Sports and Society Program at the Aspen Institute. He is also an award winning journalist who has covered college football, NCAA issues, and high school sports. Most recently he worked as a reporter at and was Vice President of the Football Writers Association of America. Jon has regularly appeared as a commentator on national TV, radio shows and podcasts. He also coaches soccer and basketball teams in Maryland for his two sons who are ages 11 and 13.

LaWanda: Thank you so much for joining us today, Jon. Let's get started. Tell us about how you ended up focusing on youth sports.

Jon: So I was, as you mentioned, a long time sports reporter and journalist for a number of years, and I was transitioning out of journalism and wanted to still find a place that had meaningful work. and the youth sports work is one of those areas.

Project Play, which is what our main initiative is at the Aspen Institute Sports and Society Program focuses on trying to reimagine youth sports through the core values of health and inclusion. And I didn't know a lot about it, at the time. But it became this really nice segue to transition out of journalism into something else. And in part because I had some experiences as well with my child, who had a bad experience growing up playing sports.

LaWanda: Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Jon: So, he was about five years old, had a great first season of T-ball. Second season was miserable. He was in a way too competitive league. Well this was about the age six years old with coaches who were way too competitive. And were more interested in winning rather than children enjoying themselves and development of skills. You had coaches who were arguing with umpires. There was one game where there was a 20 minute delay. We had to wait for the Commissioner to come and settle the dispute as all the kids are running around on the field. We had, you know, parents yelling at Umpires. We even the kids picked up on this and even had a fight in the dugout themselves. One game. At six years old.

My son played outfield most of the year and got bored as well. You know, when you think about it, you're just sitting around and the ball's not coming to the outfield too much. And, by about a month into the season, he literally said, I want to retire. And yeah. And so when I say it, a lot of people laugh and it's kind of humorous, but it's actually sad because it was a, it was a really bad experience. And I was an Assistant Coach on the team at the time, and I even talk to the head coach some about and raise some of my concerns. And the head coach said, well, that's the reason parents are paying some of this money is because they want to win. I said, that's not why I'm paying for my child to play. And I regret you know that I didn't speak up more. And I think a lot of times as parents, we don't know how to speak up more and how to have that conversation with coaches and put your foot down. You don't want to be viewed as the overbearing parent, or maybe you don't know what you're talking about.

Helen: Could you talk a little bit more about that? Cause you mentioned some pretty, personal things about what you wish you'd done. And I think for many families they really struggle with like, what should I do? What shouldn't I do? If, if you, from your expertise for it to boil it down to a couple of do's and don'ts for parents about how to support their kid's journey in sports, what sorts of things would you say do more of, and maybe do less of.

Jon: Right. Well, so number one, our at project play, our number one strategy to for how to get kids involved in sports is ask kids what they want. And it sounds really simple, but a lot of adults actually don't do it. And that is just see what they want out of their own sports experience and then follow their lead. There's lots of research and we've done surveys on this showing that the number one reasons they want to play is having fun. And they also just want to be with their friends and, and have fun with their teammates.

Instead, we take this very competitive approach and we feel like we've got to create the best eight and nine and 10 year old athletes when reality, we want to create athletes for life. And so they're still playing it 16, 17, 18 years old. And then they're, hopefully they're athletes and physically active throughout their adulthood. So follow their lead you know, understand what it is that they enjoy doing. Ask them why they like playing a certain sport, why they don't like a certain sport.

You know, a lot of people bemoan and criticize video games and screens that kids are on so much these days and there's, there's no doubt that's, that's contributing to why kids aren't more physically active. But video games are actually really smart. They, they create a kid focused product for the kids that it's customizable. They can play the, the, the level that suits them best. They can play with friends...

Helen: Yeah there’s a lot of teams in video games now...

Jon: ....Teams or, or, or, competing against each other. And you don't have adults looking over their shoulder shouting instructions at every possible moment because as adults I don't understand video games. You're just on your own, go play your own video games. And actually you've sports I think could learn a lot from video games.

Helen: That's so wise. Like, take a lesson.

LaWanda: Yeah. I never even thought about it like that, but it's so true because we're not hovering and I hear my son talking to his cousins on the video game and they're strategizing and they're playing. So that's really opened my eyes, the, the relationship between the two and how we could, if we just fell back a little bit and let them enjoy it might be a better experience. From your experience, when do you think is a good time for kids to start playing sports?

Jon: Well, it all depends on the child. I would say like follow their lead. And we sorta have to define what sports is. So it could be different types of activities. One thing that we have at Project Play is called the project play parent checklist, it's at our website, and these are 10 simple questions that every parent can ask themselves, their child and their sports provider. So it's a positive experience and we have it broken down by different categories. So there's one different set of questions you might ask for, you know, ages zero to five. Then, then there's one for kids who are six to 12 who are playing sports, and then maybe those who are six and 12 who aren't playing sports. And the whole idea is to, think internally a little bit yourself about what it is you're doing, what it is your child wants out of the experience. And then also. Some, some important questions to ask your sports provider as well. So if you're a younger child, you really just want them getting physically active and moving. This is not about keeping score and you know, winning championships or even necessarily developing the proper skills of that age. It's just getting them moving and trying to have a joy for sports and then it starts to scale up as you go.

[00:08:16] Helen: Hmm. Could you talk a little bit about what that scale looks like? Cause like so many of our listeners have kids of a variety of ages, and I think there still questions of like: well, so what is the appropriate level of both of competitiveness but also just load of extracurriculars when it comes to athletics? In the middle school years or the high school years? What's your perspective on that?

Jon: I think you'll see, you'll see it from your child and you'll be able to know like, is it too much? And be able to have those conversations. What's happening a lot in youth sports is this early specialization. This is just kids picking one sport to play all year round and they end up having potentially burnout. And they have overuse injuries because they're moving the same body parts over and over. If you're a baseball, baseball pitcher and you're pitt... Playing baseball 10 12 months out of the year, you're moving your shoulder or your elbow the same amount. And it's, it's the wear and tear that can add up to that and accumulate. And there are a lot of what are called Tommy John surgery injuries that happen to kids in surgeons are doing surgeries on many kids these days who play baseball or kids who may overuse their bodies and like basketball or soccer could have ACL injuries at really young ages.

So you need to be smart and one important strategy, I think, is to encourage sports sampling. That is let them play multiple sports. Let them grow into their bodies. Let them grow into their minds, let them go into their own interests. And then, you know, as they go along, if they've tried, say, soccer, basketball, baseball at young ages. At some point they're probably going to have more interest in maybe one of them.

[00:09:55] But say they don't make a particular team, you know later or say they get hurt in a particular sport, or they start like, disliking that sport. You have something else to fall back on to another sport that you've at least tried and participate in it before.

LaWanda: I like that. As kids transition and they get older and they go into middle school and high school. They may start being a part of more, physical sports like hockey or lacrosse or football. Should parents be afraid of that as far as them being injured and what should they do, or talk to their kids or the coaches about if their child wants to play in those more physical, contact sports?

Jon: Yeah, that's a good question. And it's, it's a fair question cause, safety and injuries are one reason kids don't play sports. And one of our key strategies is emphasized prevention and understanding that you need to be able to create a safe environment physically and also emotionally, you know, that's part of it as well. There are always going to be injuries in sports, some more than others. You want to try to minimize it as much as possible. And I think for parents, you have to go in and understand what are the benefits and what are the potential risks.

So one tool that we created is called and it's a resource that evaluates the most popular high school boys and girls sports, based on three areas of health. We look at physical activity, how much are kids in that sport, moving their bodies at practices. We look at safety, the injury data, how can we minimize injury risk? And then we look at the psychosocial benefits, looking at some surveys and data related to social, emotional, mental wellbeing. And then this is a, a resource where you can go and look for the, look at the data yourself, you know, and be able to determine, okay, is, is football the best sport for my child? Or not. And it's not to say you should play it or you shouldn't play it, but here's all the information and here are the potential benefits. But here are the risks and just know that going in.

Helen: I think one of the things that sometimes contributes to this sense of like... Feeling the pressure that even though there might be injuries or it's very competitive. Is for many families, sports is an opportunity for scholarships later on in college. And, and is that a fair assumption that if we start our kids playing young and push them through these things, they will be qualified and ready and be able to take advantage of these sports scholarships later on.

Jon: You're correct that that's what the big pursuit is, right? That that is the drive that's been happening for the past couple of decades and it's increased, I'd say even in the last like 10 years or so is...

Helen: Well college is expensive.

Jon: Very expensive, it is very expensive, and it's not to say, don't try for a college scholarship, but let's just be realistic about what the odds are of getting one. And then also, what are you possibly doing to your child along the way in your pursuit of it?

So the odds of getting a college athletic scholarship, you know, maybe about 3 to 4% of all high school athletes will get a college scholarship. And then if you get that scholarship, it may not even be a full ride. In many sports, in college athletics, it's a partial scholarship. Other than say, football or basketball and a lot of other sports, you may get half a scholarship, a third of a scholarship. So you could be investing all of this time and money into youth sports hoping for that scholarship. and it may not bear out.

Now, I think a lot of parents are well intentioned. I mean, parents just want what's best for their child. They want their child to be able to pursue their dreams. You just have to be realistic along the way and not potentially end those dreams early as we talked about with the, the pressure that could lead to burnout and the overuse injuries. We want the best 16, 17, 18 year old athlete, not necessarily the best eight, nine, 10 year old athlete.

Helen: That's a good, a good clarification.

LaWanda: Yeah, I like that a lot.

What about families? If they notice, like their high schooler is struggling to balance schoolwork and sports, perhaps their grades are dropping or they're tired because they're doing a lot of practices and then on the off season they're strength training. They are always like very focused on sports and then they see that they may be lagging in other areas. What, what can they do?

Jon: Yeah. I mean, I think that's a good conversation and a good way to use sports as maybe a carrot and a stick, right? That we want you to play sports. We want you to be physically active. But it's also a privilege as well. And there are some standards that come with it, and many high schools attach, you know, GPA requirements or you know, certain grade requirements. You can't dip below, say a C in order to participate. Parents could do the same thing, whatever your particular standards are, if you're dropping below a, a, B or a C.

I think conversations with coaches as well, you know, could be helpful if you see your child struggling and your child's not getting the, giving you the answers that you may want. It's okay to talk to a coach and try to figure that out.

Helen: Sometimes some of that dilemma comes from, you know, there's only so many hours a day and some sports require daily practice for multiple, multiple hours.

Do you at the Aspen Institute have a perspective of, is there a right answer for how many hours a week your child should be engaged in, sports outside of school?

Jon: Yeah well it shouldn't be a full time job. That's for certain, that's for sure. it's a, it's a lot of hours. There are kids sometimes putting in 20, 30 hours a week, if not sometimes more into school sports, or sports outside of school.

Helen: Yeah.

Jon: Th.... There has to be limits there has to be balanced. And I think each family has to sort of be able to figure that out. But you do not want to overuse these kids. Just going back to the point of that, they will burn out. I've seen so many kids who will burn out. I've coached, you know, soccer. There was this one kid who was, you know, really good and this 10 year old soccer, and I was just coaching rec soccer, very low key, non-competitive. And the mom wanted to move them up to travel. Okay. But I'm just curious. Okay. What's the, what's the reason why she said, we're, we're running out of time to be able to get him a college scholarship. But he's 10 years old, running out of time. Like what kind of pressure is he feeling? And I, and I could see this kid feeling some pressure because the parents would be yelling from the sidelines instructions and, imagine, you know, if as adults, we had, we were at our office, at our computer typing away. And other adults come over and start yelling at us to do this or do that with our particular job and think about how it is for kids on the playing field. As we say, we're the well intention, even as coaches or as parents in the sideline, we're saying, shoot, pass, do this, do that.

How could your mind possibly function that way?

Helen: I think it's, you mentioned the burnout again, and just going back to that, the, the sort of tension I think for many of us as parents is we want to teach our kids to persevere, right? Like not to give up. And so when you hear your child say like, I don't like, you know, hockey anymore, or I don't like softball anymore. I think as a parent, you, you, you struggle. Do we lean into what they want, or do we say like, don't quit, give it a few more chances.

What? What do you think about that tension?

Jon: Yeah. No. Then there is that tension. There's no doubt. So my approach with my children is, if they, we don't quit a sport during the season. Okay. So if you're disliking a sport, okay, we'll have that conversation at the end of the season. But I think to your point, yeah, we don't want to quit. You've made a commitment to your team, to your coaches. There are different skills that we're trying to teach here, and that is character and perseverance, and not quitting. Now, at the end of the season, if you want to have that conversation, let's have that conversation and I want to follow my child's lead, but as the kids get older. I don't think you can force sports or a particular sport on kids.

It's like we want them to eat broccoli, right? Or vegetables, and at some point at a certain age, we can't just shove it down their throat anymore. It's just not going to work. They're either going to eat it or they're not going to eat it. We can show them and expose them to all the benefits of broccoli and all the benefits of sports, but you're not going to be able to force that down their throat.

LaWanda: No broccoli.

Jon: I love broccoli.

LaWanda: How do we, encourage kids to try different sports? What kind of things can parents do to give them kind of an appetite to try anything.

Jon: One thing is just exposing them to different sports. And there's so many sports out there, right? We usually think of the main ones, right? Football, baseball, soccer, basketball.

There was just running, you know, there's just go for a walk or a jog with your child, you know? Bring them along to your, your jog around the neighborhood. There are so many other different sports tennis, golf, swimming. Just hiking in the outdoors is physical activity, not necessarily sports. And then you can also, if you're going to also have some children who want to stick with one sport because they're competitive, they want to be really good.

You can show them some examples also of the benefits of playing. Multiple sports that you're going to develop different skills and different viewpointsAnd one thing we have at is recommendations for complimentary sports that kids could play based off their primary sport.

So for instance, if your favorite sport is basketball, you can see here are five other sports and we had experts come in, some famous athletes and some national sport organizations say, all right, soccer might be another sport you want to play. Because of the, the vision that occurs in basketball and soccer because of the plane in space.

And, and just, if you're, say a kid who really likes contact, let's say, right? We know there's some kids who really like that. Say you're a football player, or wrestling may be a good sport for you. You know, in the off season. Or track and field may be, could be a good sport because that's gonna get you in shape and moving more than maybe football will not, because it tends to be a sport that's just short bursts, you know, as opposed to a longer running.

Helen: You mentioned, you know that there's many, many different sports to choose from. But we know in some communities, those are always aren't available. Or, gender wise, right? Sometimes there are fewer opportunities for girls. What is your all's perspective on that and what could parents do?

Jon: Yeah, it's difficult. I mean, we know we have research out there showing that kids who are from low income households are three times more likely to be physically inactive than kids from higher income households. And it's tough. th... There's this haves versus have nots in youth sports and it's dividing. I think you need to look for cheaper type programming. We need to have, sort of revitalize in town leagues, recreational leagues. They have to improve their quality and their quantity. I think for girls, one thing that helps a lot would be for girls to see more female coaches.

We have research showing that only about 27% of youth sports coaches are female. And so, you know, when you're a girl. It really helps to see someone who's like you, who understands some of the issues that you're, that you're going through with your body, biology, just your emotions and feelings. And just to see that someone else's has done that as well.

Helen: Yeah. I want to go back... I want to go back to one thing, cause you talked about your kid and T-ball.

Cause I think many parents are in that situation of there's either a coach or another parent who is just a little too much. What, what would you have said? Could you give our listeners some talking points? What can they say to that parent or that coach if they feel like they're pushing their kids a little too hard?

Jon: Right. I think in some ways you, you want to do it in, in the appropriate setting is what is one thing. So probably not necessarily right after a game necessarily or, You know, in a, in a tense environment, but I think you just have a candid conversation and explain what you're seeing from your own child. I mean, you're right that I think a lot of parents don't know how to say it and communicate it. But inherently they do because you just, you know, this isn't right. What I'm seeing is not right. The way my child is acting towards the sport he used to like is not right. So you put it in, in those words of just what you're seeing. And I agree with you that we need to empower parents. That's a good word. Like we need to educate them, but then empower them. And ultimately parents are really one of the big keys to changing the dynamics of youth sports because ultimately they're the consumer.

So they're the ones who are spending the money and driving the kids to the these practices and games. They're the customer. So if they understand better what good should look like and use sports, they're going to demand that better from their coaches and from their sports providers.

Helen: Are there situations where in some leagues they have sort of rules of engagement. Where they actually do that explicit education or training of parents of here's, here's what good support for your child looks like.

Jon: They should. It's, it's hard. One thing that's hard is that a lot of coaches are volunteers. And a lot of coaches aren't trained. Less than three and 10, of 10 youth sports coaches have been trained in the past year. In anything, whether that's effective motivational techniques to talk to kids, sports skills and tactics, concussion protocol, general safety.

They're not trained. They're, they mean well, and we need volunteer coaches. So it's difficult for them to even know necessarily what to say. But a good rule of thumb would be, have coaches should have open communication with the parents. You could start the season with just a brief meeting after the first practice, maybe 15 minutes or send an email, laying out sort of what your approaches to kids and then keep an open door. You know, it's something that I do as a coach. If you need to talk to me, you know, or email me I'm always willing to listen.

LaWanda: That's great. It's so much information. So much good stuff though, and it helps, I think for our listeners who feel like they're a novice. I didn't play sports as a kid necessarily. Other than recreational, I'm playing kickball with. afterschool and things like that. So raising a child now is like thinking through, I don't want to have them retire early. I don't want them to be afraid to try a different things and experience new sports. But I also want to be able to navigate it and encourage a lifelong, ability, and not have the pressure of, you have to be the best.

Jon, thank you so much for joining us today. I know we covered a lot. But what is the one thing families listening should take away from today's conversation?

That you're not alone?

Jon: That so when you're out there and you're frustrated and you're... Or this is way too expensive or what is going on in sports?

I promise you there are so many other parents thinking the same way, and a lot of you are really sensible. So it's okay to speak up and voice some of those concerns in the appropriate way, right? Not being necessarily the helicopter parent is demanding your kid, get all the playing time. But in an appropriate way because it's going to help your child have a positive experience.

LaWanda: Great. Are there any relevant resources that our listeners should check out?

Jon: Yeah. You can check out our, Project Play website at projectplay.US and we have a bunch of parent resources there. And also a where you can evaluate the different high school sports based on health.

LaWanda: Awesome. And last question.

What are your social media handles and where can listeners go to learn more about you and your work?

Jon: Sure. So my Twitter handle is @JonSolomonaspen. It's 'J O N', and then our program's Twitter handle, and also Facebook is @Aspeninstsports. A. S. P. E. N. I. N. S. T. sports.

Helen: Well, thank you again so much for joining us, John.

Jon: I enjoyed it. Thank you for having me.

Helen: This was great. That wraps up today's episode.

Before you go, listeners. Be sure to check out our website to stay in the know. You can also follow us on social media @NationalPTA and use #backpacknotes to join in on this great conversation. Thanks again for tuning in.


Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast is made possible by funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.