When I was a child in the ‘60s and ‘70s I grew up being very active — sledding and ice skating every day in the winter, camping and hiking with my family, and playing softball on the vacant lot. But I wasn’t a competitive athlete, largely because this was pre-Title IX and girls did not have many options to be involved in team sports. 

I swam on the girls’ team for my last two years of high school, because we hadn’t had a team before that. Although I loved swimming, I wasn’t very good — due to being very scrawny! So I certainly wasn’t in the running for any athletic scholarships myself. However, I also don’t recall anyone mentioning sports scholarships as much of an option. Maybe the jocks talked about this a bit, but I never caught wind of it. Because there were very few girls’ sports, females didn’t really talk about it at all.

Things are very different today. Children hear from parents at very young ages that they must engage in a sport to get a scholarship for college.  Of course, this is driven by college tuition being many times higher than it was in the 1970s when I went to college. 

As we watch college athletes unionize, demand the ability to be compensated for their “brands,” and leave for the pros before graduation, we have to accept that college sports are now essentially becoming professionalized.

 

This means the “pro” experience is being moved into younger and younger years, with a very detrimental impact on children. I see high schools celebrating big “signing days” complete with media coverage for all athletes, similar to pro athletes signing contracts. 

With so much hyper-focus on athletic performance so young, kids are not being allowed to be kids. The COVID pandemic revealed how much time some families spent on sporting practices, games, and travel tournaments. 

When I was growing up, school sports started in middle school with just a few major sports, such as basketball and track, and then a few more sports were added in high school. Seasons were short, practices were less than two hours, and no one did gym conditioning off season. Football practice started the last two weeks of August, not in early June. Certainly no one had professional trainers and coaches to fine-tune a passing spiral or develop a putting stroke. There were no travel teams playing all year and driving out of state to tournaments. 

The result today is that very young children spend far too much time sitting in cars driving to practices and hours away to tournaments and competitions. They have less and less time to just enjoy unstructured, unsupervised play — an essential for child development. 

The early specialization today has been proven to increase the chance for injuries that can be lifelong — all because a student’s young body is forced to train at levels that wer3 not even used in professional sports. 

Adults are very involved in organizing and coaching these teams, and parents feel compelled to attend every practice and event, which amps up the pressure to perform, because parents are watching every move and critiquing it. 

I’ve worked in therapy with a high school quarterback buckling under anxiety because at age 15 he was getting college coaches and scouts contacting his family. He was going to professionally run coaching seminars every weekend and throwing 500 passes a week, aiming to get a Division 1 team offer. Kids shouldn’t need a therapist just because of their involvement in a sport! Being a quarterback should not be a traumatic experience!

I’ve worked with many teens who are perfectionistic, driven and suffering from insomnia and eating disorders due to the pressure to perform and achieve that essential scholarship. 

Because colleges offer athletic scholarships, society has developed this industrial sports complex to groom children to compete at the highest level possible and win these coveted team slots and full-ride offers. 

Consider what it would be like without scholarships — as I experienced the athletic system in my youth. Children wouldn’t be started in a specific sport so young and would be able to enjoy a diverse set of experiences, including art, music, or just join the Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts. 

I know this is never likely to change, but I recommend we ban college athletic scholarships. Not only would be put the focus back on academics in college — where it belongs — but also would free up our youth to be young. They could play unencumbered by adult supervision and rules and pressures to perform. 

I remember the idyllic experience of spending hours in the vacant lot playing softball with the neighbor kids — and learning how to argue and resolve conflicts. I went sledding down hills without adults watching every move — and learned how to judge risks, fall, and pick myself back up. I rode my bike for hours alone — without peer pressure to fit in and with plenty of time to think. I built snow forts and had snowball fights — feeling pure glee, excitement, and creativity. I swam in ponds — and faced my fears of seaweed and snapping turtle bites. How many children get this type of “athletic” training? 

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