Justin Ricklefs does some soul searching on youth sports and shares what his family is doing to inject a little joy into the madness.
I don’t have many answers. I’m simply asking questions and making observations as we navigate one aspect of our lives: youth sports.
My wife and I were both fairly decent athletes in our youth. She was a great volleyball player and dancer. I played varsity football, basketball and baseball. We weren’t unbelievable, but we were athletic. And hey, I still play old-man basketball every week. (I sprained my ankle last month to prove it.)
The thoughts we share here have been hashed out with friends, coaches (we’ve been fortunate to have had great experiences with our kids’ coaches) and other parents here in Kansas City.
Here are a few caveats:
- We love coaching and watching our kids’ activities.
- We believe competition is a great thing.
- We believe sports have the ability to teach valuable life lessons.
- We want our kids to do their best and will support them however we can.
- We realize this is simply a season, one we’ll look back on with fond memories.
Some of this may frustrate you, some may encourage you. But hopefully we can begin a healthy conversation about this topic.
Here’s the big question I’m wrestling with regarding youth sports: Where is the joy?
Have we traded it in for competition? Or preparation? Or even comparison?
I’m not talking about high school or college sports, that’s not our reality yet. Maybe my views will change as we enter those seasons. But for now, with four of our kids in sports (5th grade, 3rd grade, 1st grade and a five year old), we’re noticing an ugly underbelly.
And I’ve played a part. Angry parents. Frustrated coaches. Bitter kids. Schedules on the brink of disaster. Screaming, hustling, shuffling. Demanding, spending, comparing. More dinners out of a bag than around a table. More time apart than together. More chaos than peace.
I’ve been accused of being too positive, too rosy and too encouraging, and I’m sure I’m guilty of over-praising kids. Which is unhealthy in other ways I’m sure. But for the love of the games and for the love of our kids, can we please inject some more joy into youth sports?
After all, are our children playing because they love it or because we want them to love it?
Because it teaches them something about themselves or because it validates something about ourselves?
Because competition brings out the best in them or the worst in us?
Chances are very small that any of our five children will ever earn a penny from playing a sport. Unless they hustle younger kids on the playground someday.
Maybe yours will.
In light of that reality, wouldn’t it be amazing if our youth sports coaches and parents filled these kids up with joy for the game instead of over-competition? Joy instead of frustration? With encouragement instead of criticism? With a slap on the back instead of chastising them?
I’m not pretending to know all the answers. But I do know that, in the name of giving our kids an opportunity, we’ve stolen joy and replaced it with anger many times. This isn’t a battle we’re shying away from and youth sports aren’t something we’re going to stop pursuing. After all, our kids love it for now.
So practically, here is what our family is doing to inject a little joy into the madness:
- Our kids have permission to quit a sport if they don’t love it. Not in the middle of a season. But if they gave it their best shot and didn’t enjoy it, they can quit no questions asked.
- As a coach, I’m aware of my anger. Yelling so kids can hear, speaking loudly and demanding attention is part of a healthy and respectful view of sport. But man it’s a fine line between yelling and screaming. Authority and anger. My goal is to ensure that when my voice is raised it’s to encourage them, not berate them.
- We eat dinner around our own table as often as possible. Realistically it doesn’t happen every night and it’s not always glamorous, but we’re fighting like hell for more time together not less.
- We skip practices. Not often, but we do on occasion. Sometimes for good reasons. Sometimes simply to regroup as a family.
- Our kids get to choose one sport per season (caveat is our girls do one dance lesson a week in addition to whatever sport they’re in – is dancing a sport? Kidding, don’t crush me.). With five kids, it’s impossible to juggle even one sport per kid let alone multiple sports.
- We won’t force them to “specialize”. I’ve been around some amazing athletes through my youth and my professional career, and by and large, most of them played multiple sports all the way through high school. If our kids want to play zero, one or several sports, that’s great. But we’ll never force them to pick only one so they can “specialize.”
- They’re not taking extra lessons. At least not yet. Our son doesn’t need a swing coach at five. Our daughters don’t need private soccer lessons. Maybe there’s a time for that, but it’s not yet.
- We don’t attend every kid’s every activity. Part of this is because of our unique dynamics with five kids, but we’re preparing our kids that sometimes mom and/or dad won’t be at that practice, game, tournament, recital, whatever. When we’re there (which is 95% of the time), we’re cheering like crazy. But our lives also don’t revolve around their sports.
This is a sensitive conversation that I’m sure isn’t fully exhausted here, but it’s one I think we should start having more honestly and openly. I’m hopeful we can all start to play a part in the solution.
Because sports should be enjoyed.
This post originally ran on JustinRicklefs.com
Photo Credit: Author