Years ago, a youth league baseball coach called to let me know that my 11-year old son was being invited to join a major league team - a year ahead of most boys his age. After an initial rush of pride, I wondered how this "honor� might impact our family. We had three children - the baseball player was the oldest - and up until that point, sports had been a pretty low-intensity activity that fit easily into our vision of balanced family life.
By contrast, the major league commitment sounded enormous: practice three days a week, games on Saturday and Sunday, and batting practice every weekday. Convinced that our young family could manage, we said "yes� to baseball and, in doing so, embarked on an epic struggle between sports and family life. Over the years, we saw one family activity after another bow its head to youth sports. Dinner at home, reading before bedtime, visits to grandma's house, household chores, games in the backyard, picnics, weekend jaunts into the countryside, camping trips, school vacations - all casualties of the children's sports schedule.
There are lots of positives to youth sports. Participation in organized sports can provide healthy, non-violent competition, regular exercise, and ready-made social life. Ballparks and gyms can offer wholesome gathering places for parents and for children - somewhere to relax, to have fun. Sometimes, it's easier to go along with the sports scene than to develop a family's more varied activities and interests. Everybody does it! Organized youth sports has become so embedded in suburban American culture that a child who doesn't participate is seen as "out of step�. Occasionally, I hear someone talk about a family who dared pull their children out of soccer or baseball as if they've fallen off the face of the earth.
First off, you'd have a lot of explaining to do. You've been preaching all the blue-ribbon values to your children: perseverance, determination, loyalty to the team, sacrifices for a greater goal. Then, you announce that the whole family is going to the beach for spring break and skipping the pre-season soccer tournaments. Children hear a mixed message: "We follow the rules, except when it suits us to do otherwise.� And don't forget the ire of coaches and other parents, when your family breaks from the pack. Word gets out that you're not giving a hundred percent, and, before long, your child can become expendable.
I've had a few years to think about the family life we missed because of our commitment to youth sports, and I'm still not sure. We almost never skipped games or practices; we participated in fund-raising, team meetings, weekend travel � all with the best of intentions. Over time, our children's sports became the center that everything else revolved around, and too much of the non-sports side of life just disappeared. A friend recently told me that he, his wife and three children were taking their first big vacation together. Their destination was a theme park in Florida. Later, he confessed that the trip hadn't gone as planned � his wife took two children on the vacation trip, while he took his daughter to play in the state soccer tournament. How does one weigh a daughter's sports experience against the family trip that never happened?