Sports have always been an American pastime. Most American children have grown up with a wide range of athletic opportunities. Beginning in elementary school and going all the way through college, every major sport is available for every age group. In recent years, we have seen the expansion of opportunity with middle school and high school lacrosse and little league ice and deck hockey.
As parents, most of us believe that participation in sports does a variety of things for our children's overall development. They learn teamwork, self-discipline, commitment and hopefully respect and responsibility.
The average school age coed has to learn how to juggle school, family life and social life. Sometimes that balance becomes painfully difficult for the athlete and for his or her parents.
Depending on the sport, the level of competition and the demands made on our children vary. In most cases, those demands are reasonable or at least open for discussion. Unfortunately, the media has exposed a growing number of circumstances that have caused many parents to become concerned.
At one time, when you signed your children up for sports or they joined a varsity team at school, the only things you as a parent worried about were coordinating dinner and rides to and from practice. Now, for our older children, we worry about the quality of supervision, we worry about hazing, and in a growing number of communities, we worry about parental rage.
The landscape of sports has changed drastically in the last twenty-five years. The growing opportunities are a positive change. However, the growing negative possibilities are a cause for great concern.
Most parents see sports as an opportunity to build character and provide a positive environment for our children to play and grow. Idealistically, I think that is still the hope of every sports program. However, the reality of life raises some serious concerns that we all must face.
Playing sports was once the only arena that most parents felt was safe for their developing children. Drug and alcohol use was minimal or non-existent. Supervision was intense and those who coached were powerful role models for very impressionable young people.
Today, I think most who are involved with athletics still want to build character, want to create a safe, protected, life-giving environment and want coaches to be powerful role models. In many communities, all of these positive variables are in place.
Unfortunately, as life has become more complicated, so too has the arena of youth sports. Little children involved in league activities are being pressed at a young age to be highly competitive. They are compelled to practice ridiculously long hours each week, causing stress at home and at school. League organizations are finding that some volunteer coaches have great knowledge of the sport and great love for children, but lack the skills to be patient, positive role models. This concern is documented by the growing number of complaints from parents regarding temper and anger issues. That is not only a coaching issue but also a fans issue as well. There have been too many accounts of adults getting into vulgar shouting matches that end up in fistfights.
On the high school level, there are equally compelling concerns. It has been long established in our county that high school athletics are intensely competitive. Winning is not everything, it is the only thing that matters to many involved in high school sports.
The competition problem subtly wreaks havoc in many ways. Too many competitive athletes become obsessed with their sport at the expense of everything else in their lives. They live, sleep, eat and breath the sport they are playing. While on some level that is a noble spirit, on a very base level it is troubling and in some cases very destructive.
Family life oftentimes is put on a back burner. Student athletes are made to feel that the team must come first and everything else is second including family and school. Many parents feel powerless and give in to that priority list. They delude themselves by giving the sport more of a positive influence than it has on its' own merit.
Recently, we all received mid-term progress reports. How many parents of student athletes got reports that were not sterling, i.e. failing test scores, missing homework and being unprepared for class? When you question your athlete, he or she uses the team and its' rigorous schedule as his or her excuse for poor school performance. As a parent, what do you do? If you sanction your son or daughter by not allowing them to go to practice or suggest that they need to get home earlier, you put the athlete in a very tough spot.
One would think that a school's priority is to educate and empower our children to be all they can be. So, one would think that the coaching staff hired by our schools would work more closely with their athletes to see that they make the grade.
In fairness, some high schools have a very strict academic code for athletes. Whether it is fairly implemented across the board is another question, but at least in those districts it is a first step.
The other area of concern is the social life of our athletes. Most schools have athletes sign a contract promising not to drink or drug during the season. The consequences for non-compliance run the gamut. The actual implementation of the contract runs the gamut as well. Too often too many turn a blind eye in this arena.
If athletics are supposed to be in concert with our schools in building character and empowering athletes to become all that they can be, what message are we giving them when we say "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing?"