Micro-Macro Connection

Parental Pressure in Childhood Sports

In the past, childhood sports were simply fun and recreational. But sports are now a multibillion-dollar business (Greene, 2004). With the promise of lucrative professional careers looming large, parents often encourage young children who show some athletic promise to hone their skills early on. For instance, gymnasts and figure skaters must start training for their athletic futures when they’re toddlers if they have any desire to succeed later on. Companies with names like athleticBaby and Baby Goes Pro now market sports DVDs to parents who want to get their children started in athletics—sometimes even before they’re old enough to walk. Gyms around the country offer exercise classes for children as young as four months.

In communities all across the country, parents encourage and sometimes force their children to specialize in one sport and play it year round, making what were once carefree activities look, for all intents and purposes, like work. When asked how long the baseball season is for his team of nine-year-olds, one coach replied, “Labor Day to Labor Day” (quoted in Pennington, 2003, p. C16). Ironically, such early specialization is making children less athletically well rounded and more prone to injury.

Furthermore, it has become rather common for children to be turned over to professionals for training for future athletic careers. Affluent towns often have youth soccer clubs run by paid directors and coached by professionals rather than parent volunteers. Some parents go even further. At IMG Academies in Bradenton, Florida, for instance, potential sports prodigies—in team sports like baseball, basketball, and soccer as well as individual sports like tennis and golf—practice their sport over four hours a day for five days a week from September to May. In addition, they participate in hours of intense physical and mental conditioning each week. Depending on the sport, tuition plus room and board can cost over $70,000 a year for first to fifth graders, and that’s not counting extras like deluxe meal plans, language tutors, and private coaching sessions, which can cost several thousand dollars more (IMG Academy, 2015). In the end, some parents end up investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in their young children’s athletic futures hoping for the next Serena Williams, Rory McIlroy, or LeBron James.

Parents who pressure their children to succeed athletically defend their actions by citing studies that show that adolescents involved in sports are less likely to use drugs and are more likely to get good grades in school than children who aren’t involved. The ultra-organized model of sports teams, they believe, is a valuable way to teach children qualities they will need down the road, like teamwork, responsibility, and self-reliance.

But not everyone is in favor of specialized, pressurized sports experiences for children. Grassroots organizations have sprung up in recent years to help parents and children return relaxation to lives that are crammed with games, practices, and other activities (Tugend, 2006). The American Youth Soccer Organization provides guidance on its website for how communities can establish “Silent Saturdays,” days on which coaches are asked not to coach their players and parents are asked not to cheer or guide their children in any way. There is no shouting, swearing, or yelling at referees and, according to supporters, no pressure on children.

As we saw in Chapter 9, the pressure on children to excel at younger and younger ages reflects a growing concern with young people’s ability to compete in the global economic marketplace. In the pressure-packed world of contemporary childhood sports, we see the interconnections of large-scale social change and everyday life.