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What Do Mothers Want from Youth Sports?

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Brooke de Lench on ESPN's Outside the Lines

But the more important question is, will a poll and another roundtable actually do anything to help keep our kids safe, or at least safer? Will another poll and another roundtable convince those who run youth sports programs in this nation, who continue to be mostly men, to do more to take concrete steps to address the concerns of mothers and women? Will they know what to do with the data? Or, will they decide instead, as I told ESPN's "Outside the Lines", to continue to pay lip service to those concerns and patronize women by conducting "mom" clinics to teach us how to tackle correctly instead of running "dad" clinics to teach the coaches - almost all of whom continue to be men - what they need to do to keep our kids safe? 

Moms: Missing Piece of Youth Sports Puzzle 

Four years ago, I was hired by Gatorade to serve as a consultant on "sports moms" and what motivates, challenges and rewards them in raising young athletes. Gatorade hired an independent pollster to survey 900 moms. Not surprisingly, what they learned confirmed what I had already told them about the concerns of moms, concerns which motivated me to convene my own ‘roundtable' fifteen years ago by launching MomsTEAM.com; concerns that I wrote about at length in my book, "Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports," especially in a chapter I called, "A Mothers Voice: The Missing Piece of the Youth Sports Puzzle:" 

The sports landscape has changed dramatically over the past thirty five years. Organized sports have become our children's new playground. The sandlots of yesteryear have been replaced by multi-million dollar youth sports complexes and highly organized programs. Pick-up games during which the kids themselves divvied up the players in a way designed to leave the outcome in doubt and in which every child played, no matter how unskilled, have been replaced by organized "drafts" where coaches try to outmaneuver each other to stack their teams with the most skilled players; and by select travel programs intentionally designed to pick the "best" and discard the rest.

Too many of our kids are becoming statistics. Though nine out of ten of all youth sports accidents and deaths are preventable, the number of our children suffering unnecessary injuries and even death playing youth sports continues to rise. In ever-greater numbers young athletes are suffering physically, psychologically and sexually at the hands of parents, coaches and other players. Violence toward officials, trash-talking, deadly hazing rituals, the use of performance-enhancing drugs, and cheating in every form imaginable are steadily increasing. 

Youth sports are creating serious social problems: rape by athletes, violence toward other players and non-athletes, coaches bending eligibility rules, adults setting terrible examples by physically and verbally abusing kids, coaches, officials and other adults. Steroid use among high school athletes has grown by 67% since 1971, leaving users with severe and lasting physical and psychological problems. Childhood obesity and Type II diabetes have reached epidemic levels as more and more children abandon the playground or sports field for the comfort of their couches and Play Stations. 

Seven years ago stories about attacks on referees by coaches, parents or even young athletes were rare. Now there are half a dozen reports of such incidents each week. While the media continues to blame parents, out-of-control parents are much more a reflection of the deep structural problems in today's youth sports; a symptom of the disease, not the disease itself. The real problem is much more fundamental: all too often youth sports today is not about kids playing sports, it is about how adults are manipulating the system to serve their own interests: the game within the game.

Sports continue to be a world of tough guys. Tough guys aren't supposed to get hurt or die. Children, like their professional counterparts, are expected to play, no matter what happens to their developing bones, brains and psyches. If they don't, they risk losing their place on the roster and, too often, deprived of a chance to play at all. Potentially fatal concussions are too often trivialized with comments like, "He just got his bell rung."

As mothers feel pressured to try to pack more and more activities into the lives of their children even such seemingly straightforward tasks as registering a child for a youth sports program and getting their child to practices and games on time, in uniform, and properly nourished and equipped, is becoming more difficult and adding to the already stressful lives of both parent and child. 

Guardians of Children at Play

While much has changed, what has not changed is the hardwired instinct of mothers to want to nurture and protect their children from harm. But instead of continuing to serve as the primary guardians of our children at play - hanging out a city window to check on our kids' play in the street below, or looking into the backyard to monitor a group of ten-year old kids playing touch football - today's mothers are usually found sitting in the stands, working behind the concession counter selling snacks and raffle tickets, working as team administrators, or chauffeuring their kids to and from practice and games. The puzzling absence of women coaches in youth sports, as Scott Lancaster, the director of the National Football League's youth football program, noted in his book, Fair Play: Making Organized Sports a Great Experience for Your Kid, is "clearly one of the most backward traditions in sports today."

The 3 o'clock e-mail

Not surprisingly, the uncomfortable feeling many mothers have that they could do something about our runaway youth sports culture if only given the chance is reflected in the e-mails I receive at MomsTeam; many from mothers who wake up in the middle night worried sick not only about what sports are doing to their kids but to themselves; e-mails seeking advice about what, if anything, they can do about it. 

The e-mails suggest that:

  • While our daughters are participating in athletics in ever greater numbers, many mothers are struggling to find ways to have their voices heard, for youth sports to reflect their values and concerns as much as those of men. 
  • Despite the fact that more and more mothers have played sports, like their children's fathers, many have been intimidated by those who hold positions of power in youth sports into believing that they don't know enough about sports to warrant moving from the stands to the coaching sidelines or on to a league's board of directors.
  • Mothers know intuitively that they should be doing everything possible to protect their children from the pressures of the adult world, not intentionally exposed, as is so often the case in today's youth sports, to those often harsh realities at ever earlier ages. Taught by the media and radical feminists to be ashamed about their maternal, nurturing and intuitive side, mothers are too often afraid to follow and act on their intuition even though it tells them that a youth sports system which too often emphasizes winning and competition over fun and skill development, treats children as young as six as adults and cruelly and unfairly saddles so many as failures before they have even reached puberty because they weren't lucky enough to be "early bloomers" or have a January birthday, is not the kind of nurturing, caring and, above all, inclusive environment mothers believe their children need to grow into confident, competent, empathetic, emotionally and psychologically healthy adults.
  • Many mothers are afraid their children will be ostracized if they criticize the status quo, if they try to protect their children against a runaway youth sports system that injures, and unfairly classifies and excludes, more and more kids each year; 
  • Many are getting sucked into the crazy vortex of competitive youth sports, where survival virtually requires that they become overly focused on and invested in their children's success in sports, even though they know that it means adding fuel to an already out-of-control fire that is burning up our children and leaving them with life-long psychological and physical scars. As Time columnist Amy Dickinson put it, too many mothers "go to bed at night wondering if we can pinpoint the moment we became our dads. 

A Christmas e-mail

On Christmas Day, 2002 I received an e-mail from Sam, a well known professional athlete. He was struggling to understand why my company's online publication, MomsTeam.com, was directed to sports mothers. He asked me whether assigning certain characteristics to men and women was to "skate on thin ice," as he believed youth sports could be made "safer, saner, less stressful and more inclusive" (the MomsTeam mission) only if "all points of view [were] embraced and seriously considered." Sam wanted to know how I saw the "pieces of the puzzle fitting together to get a complete picture."I wasn't prompted to keep the e mail because it came from a prominent former professional athlete, but because it came from someone who not only knew that a big piece was missing from the youth sports puzzle but, without even realizing it, what that missing piece was: the views, concerns and participation of youth sports mothers.

What most sports mothers want

What, then, do sports mothers want? What are their concerns? From the tens of thousands of e-mails I have received over the last six years [now 14], from my conversations with mothers all across the country, including the mothers of many Olympic athletes, I believe that, first, and foremost, the vast majority of mothers (and many fathers, of course) just want to make youth sports fun again, to know that everything possible is being done to protect their children from injury and abuse and given a chance to play until they graduate high school; that if it is no longer safe for our children to learn baseball or soccer on their own on the neighborhood sandlot, the organized sports program in which we enroll our child - the "village" - will protect them and keep them safe while they are entrusted to their care. It isn't just the safety of our own children we care about: as mothers we care about the well-being of all children.

Second, I am convinced that many mothers (and some forward-thinking fathers) believe the time has come to challenge the assumption that, for better or worse, competition in youth sports must defined solely in terms of winning and losing, and displays of power, dominance and control. Instead, many want our children to learn that while competition is healthy and necessary (at least after they have developed a mature understanding of what competition means at around age twelve), a successful competition is one where all players contribute, do their best, and respect their teammates, opponents and the rules.

Third, I believe many mothers want the culture of youth sports to include a mother's perspective and celebrate the values of women as much as men. As natural communicators and nurturers, mothers, I believe, are in the best position to inspire coaches, parents, athletic directors, school boards, and local and national youth sports organizations to do more to keep children safe, to balance competition with cooperation and connectedness, and to think about sports not just as a place to showcase the gifted and talented but as a place where all of our children can begin a love affair with sports and physical exercise lasting a lifetime, instead of ending, as too often is the case, in early adolescence.