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Examining motives in youth sports

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about technology, and how, during my lifetime, its proliferation has made life as a working professional both better and more challenging simultaneously.

I realized through writing it that my childhood occurred in a transitional period in many ways — a tech-filled future was laid out in the near horizon, but my actual experience was more rooted in what my parents went through, as opposed to what my kids are going through.

Another area where that holds true is youth sports.

The headline in our sister paper, the Sandusky Register, was harrowing two weekends ago: “Shooting at sports center.”

The scene was grim. In the parking lot of a large and impressive youth athletic palace, the Cedar Point Sports Center, an adult shot another. Their argument, between coach and parent, allegedly began from a disagreement about playing time at the AAU basketball tournament happening that day.

As of earlier this week, the victim remained in the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, according to the Register.

When I saw the initial post, I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Just the week before, my daughter beamed with pride at Findlay’s Emory Adams Park after her youth soccer club won its bracket at the Flag City Invitational. I honestly don’t recall if I’ve ever seen her so happy.

The tournaments she plays in are not dissimilar to the AAU basketball tournaments held that weekend in Sandusky. Those are kids who love a particular sport, whose parents make a commitment to having them be part of a club.

At their best, they are a great experience. Kids who love to work hard and grow in their sport are surrounded by like-minded coaches, teammates. and families. While the expectation is that playing will help kids grow into better teammates, athletes, and skilled players, no club guarantees a young athlete a scholarship, or even a guaranteed spot on the high school team.

In Isabelle’s experience — as well as my younger daughter, Juliet’s, dance studio — that has been the overwhelming case.

But, in many cases, the dog-eat-dog world of youth sports creates pressure cracks — parents living vicariously through their kids, parents and kids trying to do whatever they can to garner the attention of college coaches, kids playing for themselves in an effort to “be seen.”

In those situations, the team concept crumbles, and problems arise.

Obviously, the Sandusky example is an extreme case. But many have been troubled by the rise of year-round sports clubs and high-stress tournaments for some time. Some clubs and programs effectively discourage kids from trying multiple sports by stressing “keeping up with the Joneses” through specialization.

When I was a kid, there was a fall season (I played football), a winter season (I played basketball) and a spring season (I played baseball). And then there was summer. During summer, I was a kid, as the final pitch of Little League gave way to a magical summer of unorganized friend time, ripe with sandlot games and pickup basketball.

When I donned the shoulder pads and cleats, it meant that the first bell of school was near.

Now, it’s hard to understand each sport’s season. Almost all have a summer season, and most sports have two seasons. Take basketball, for example. School basketball is in the winter, club (AAU) is in the spring, and school camps, etc., are during the summer.

That makes it harder to be that multi-sport athlete, let alone the kid who also wants to be part of band, a club, etc.

We are not going back to the days of my childhood. I understand that. A vast majority of clubs do great for their kids, providing a fun and growing atmosphere.

But I hope situations like the Sandusky shooting give all of us with a stake in youth sports a pause.

What is the end game, here?

If it’s not to give our children a good, fun experience, or to help them grow in their ability to be a better teammate, future worker, leader, or problem-solver, we must question our collective motives.

The scholarships will come to those athletes who deserve them. College coaches are too connected now not to find next-level players.

Let’s let our kids be kids.

Jeremy Speer is the publisher of The Courier in Findlay, Ohio, The Advertiser-Tribune in Tiffin, Ohio, and Review Times in Fostoria, Ohio. He can be reached at jeremyspeer@thecourier.com or jspeer@advertiser-tribune.com.

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