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Balancing Sports and Family Is Often A Challenge

Caught in the youth sports "undertow"

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.

Caught In The Youth Sports "Undertow"


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.

"Bucking The System"


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.

Is It All Worth It?


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?

Setting Priorities


If you sense that your children's participation in sports is overwhelming your family life, it is time to take a closer look:

  • Family Vision.Write down everyone's expectations, under the heading "Things We Don't Want to Miss." You can do this best with input from everyone at a family meeting. Be as specific as you can. Include the big and the little items, such as "visit our relatives," "go fishing," "ride a train," "have real conversations," "community service," etc. These are the experiences that will make up the fabric and memories of your family life. You can weave a rich, textured tapestry.

  • Time Inventory.Track the time your family devotes to organized youth sports for one typical month. Block out on a calendar with colored markers, the "blocks" of each day devoted to transportation, practice, and competition. Highlight family dinners missed and invitations declined because of sports conflicts. Putting it all down on paper can be a shock, because of the increasing number of commitments families absorb without realizing it.

  • Family/Sports Balance.Assess the relative emphasis that you give to non-sports family life and to sports participation by looking at your vision and your time inventory and asking: How much free time does our family actually have? Are we making our "Don't Miss" list a priority? Do we have energy left over for important non-sports activities? Over the long-term is the ratio tilting more to one side or the other?

Finding The Right Balance


Awareness is the first step toward restoring a healthy balance to family life. Once you've identified the problem, you'll begin to see solutions. Here are some tips:

  • Consider each child's individual needs. Is their interest in sports in proportion to the time they're putting in? Back off of multiple commitments, if necessary, for some children. Even one sport every season may be too much.

  • Set limits. Put limits on how much family time you'll devote to youth sports.

  • Plan ahead. Be more deliberate and assertive about planning for family activities. Look ahead and identify the nights and weekends that aren't scheduled.

  • Set priorities. Decide which family activities seem most important in the overall scheme.

  • Be up front with coaches and other parents. Address the family/sports balance up front with parents and coaches. Bring the question up for discussion in pre-season meetings. Seek out teams with like-minded families

  • Keep a proper perspective. Most importantly, remember that you're raising a great person, not just a great athlete.

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