Community Voices: Good, bad and ugly in youth sports

Youth sports play a major role in American life, studies say, teaching kids determination, cooperation and good sportsmanship. Millions of us have been exposed to the allure of competition as players, spectators and coaches.

As a former high school and college athlete, I couldn’t wait to sign my four kids up to watch them play. They tried softball, swimming, lacrosse, baseball, basketball and soccer. The early years were hectic but fun, and they all got a chance to build confidence and learn life lessons, including painful ones.

When I recently heard that last year’s Little League Baseball World Series winners had to vacate their victories because adult leaders broke league rules, I was heartbroken. Having seen some of the uglier aspects of youth sports - like overly competitive parents and coaches - I understood how it could happen.

There’s definitely a fine line between allowing sports to develop your child, and letting them take over. If you’re the parent of an athlete, you know what I mean: you’re proud to watch your kid play, so you keep moving him or her to the next competitive level. Soon games and tournaments take over your weekends, your vacations, years of your life. You lose balance and the ability to control priorities.

Overplay, too, can lead to injury. Both my daughters tore the anterior cruciate knee ligaments playing soccer when they were only 13 and 14 years old – a painful injury that requires reconstructive surgery and six months of physical therapy. All four of my kids had at least one emergency room visit for breaks, sprains, concussions and lacerations.

Parents definitely have to assess if the risks involved in playing are worth the benefits. They also need to set aside dreams of stardom for their kids and have an honest discussion about what’s best in the long run. Focusing on academics, employment and career goals may be better for many high school students than spending hours playing a sport.

Fortunately, cities throughout North Fulton offer numerous sports at relatively low costs for kids of all ages and abilities. For example, my son gave up the idea of trying for high school baseball to spend more time on schoolwork, but had a blast playing with friends through Alpharetta Youth Baseball at Wills Park.

For the kids determined to play no matter what, we owe it to them to reward their grit with a chance at true glory. Youth sport organizers need to keep up the good work improving safety and youth development training for coaches. High school leaders must evaluate how athletics is helping and hindering academics. Parents should keep perspective on winning and losing, supporting all the kids while celebrating their own.