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The Dark Side Of Youth Sports

Child Exploitation

The evolving trend toward children being younger and younger when they begin to specialize in a particular sport makes me uneasy. In her book Little Girls In Pretty Boxes, author Joan Ryan concluded that our insatiable national appetite for new stars has resulted in "consumption and disposal of these young athletes" that is "tantamount to child exploitation and, in too many cases, child abuse."

Child exploitation in youth sports is not limited to such high-profile sports as figure skating and gymnastics. The potential is present whenever a family faces decisions on how to help a talented child progress to the next level. The potential for exploitation is high whenever youngsters become involved in high-intensity training programs. It is difficult for many thirteen-year-olds to remain committed to such a program, whether the sport is gymnastics, football, swimming, or wrestling, but it is more likely when a determined parent insists that the child continue or risk being labeled a "quitter."

Here are some questions to ponder:

  • Should parents decide? A seven year old, even one ten years old, is too young to decide to begin intense training. Parents say they are "doing it for my child," but is it really possible for parents to make such decisions, or is part of the decision based on their own desires and on their own competitive drive? Are decisions about the child being made for their own good, or can financial incentives cloud the judgment of the adults involved?

  • Do young athletes need to be protected against exploitation and abuse? In 1993, sociologist Peter Donnelly called for the enactment of some form of child-labor law to protect the welfare of elite young athletes. He argues that when parents, agents, and administrators stand to make a large profit from the performance of a child athlete, the young athlete deserves some protection.

  • Is having athletic talent a curse rather than a blessing? So much is expected of so-called talented athletes, and often, at the end of the road, after all the struggles, they receive so little for their efforts. Is it worth it?

Youth Sports Dropouts

35% of the young athletes in a recent survey of 1,183 athletes aged eleven to eighteen planned to stop playing the next year. Nearly half of the parents of 418 athletes aged six to ten surveyed reported that their child was not interested in sport anymore. In a survey of 5,800 children who had recently stopped playing a sport, the top five reasons for stopping were:

  • I lost interest

  • I was not having fun

  • It took too much time

  • Coach was a poor teacher

  • Too much pressure

Asked what changes might get them involved in sports again, frequent responses included:

What these findings suggest is that the way our youth sports programs are organized and run fail to meet the needs of children.