I naively thought COVID might save youth sports. I thought maybe we, the adults, could move beyond or repair the dysfunction that had built to a heightened level before the onset of the pandemic in spring, 2020.
I was wrong. COVID made things worse.
In January of 2020, I had secured a literary agent to represent the non-fiction proposal I’d written about adult emotion in youth sports. It was over a decade in the making. Two separate agents believed I had hit on something in my argument that adults were making youth sports decisions (and child-rearing mistakes) entirely too connected to their own personal and often negative emotions. I had identified what I now believe are the symptoms of a deeper underlying reality. After observing and having no words to write during two years of the pandemic rebound, while waiting to see how everyone walked back out onto courts and fields, I now think what is actually driving the youth sports craze is something bigger than, although still tied to, emotion.
People desire connection to something bigger. In pursuit of those connections, people too often kill any chance they might have had at the authentic community they crave.
The adult feelings that explode on youth sports sidelines are sometimes a result of their own unrequited sports story, but I think some of it is in response to the devolving relationships and connections that are absolutely integral to the human journey.
We want back authentic communities that have been replaced by fabricated ones.
Yes, parents are FEARFUL. They want to be good parents and they are afraid about making wrong decisions, especially when it comes to the groups with whom they share their children. Humans are relational by nature and we pay attention to the ways others navigate. This is not a new phenomenon. The grass has always been greener on the other side of our neighbor’s fence. The problem now is, through the internet, we can see into absolutely everyone’s yard and the comparisons are overwhelming. There are so many ways other “communities” are doing it better and when the community in which we live or play does not have what we think is best for our children, we either attempt to create it ourselves or, if that fails, mobility makes changing communities a new reality. And an increasing one.
Justifiably, parents want their children to have access to the best most positive group experience(s) they can offer to them. They do not want their children to miss out. It happens with sports, but it is happening in many more areas too. Schools, churches, activities, and the groups to which we allow children access are dynamically responding to the cultural shift in what it means to be part of a community. Essentially, parents want their children to be part of the best school, church and teams they can create or find for them. Even more than that…the parents themselves want to align with the group/community to which they feel most a part of too.
Why settle for involvement in a lesser group if you have the means or ability to move to a greater group?
The irony in all of it is that the harder people try to find the community they think they need, the more destruction is happening to authentic communities they might have had.
It is an innate human need to belong to a group. To see ourselves as a part of something bigger than us. Parents are clamoring to make sure that they are never the reason their children cannot attain the strongest, most positive group and they certainly do not want to be the reason their children are not included.
What if the real driver is CONNECTION?
REAL CONNECTION like whites-of-your-eye-balls-physically-sharing-a-space connection. Deep connection that goes beyond the surface-level scoreboard and travel arrangements. We desire deep, authentic human relationship and we’ve fabricated an entire youth sports system that pretends to offer that to us.
My husband and I work in industries where spaces and events are created for gathering and we have never been worried about job security. Except for a global pandemic, we’ve never had a reason to. People love to get together. People NEED to get together. They crave, seek out and pursue shared experiences with other people. Period. Think about what people spend their hard-earned cash on: concerts, college or pro sports games, parties or other group experiences. As parents, very often that money is also allocated for youth sports and the very best youth sports experiences money can buy.
What did we miss most during lock down? We missed gathering. We missed the connection that is so central to being human. The thing is, we started missing that about the time smart phones took the place of in-person engagement. Technology, and specifically social media, has been wreaking havoc on all sorts of community systems, including youth sports, for decades. COVID just made all of it worse.
Sure, technology creates connection, but it is shallow. It also makes connection happen differently. Actually, in many cases the advent of social media technology jumbles, perverts and distorts authentic relationship, but the novelty hasn’t completely worn off yet and it is what a lot of people say actually keeps them “connected” to people. They are connecting, but not in the authentic, real way that will fill the holes and keep people from the desperate search that consumer, youth sports culture exploits.
Since pandemic lock-down, and as soon as activities resumed, people became almost frantic about getting youth sports programming, teams, and intentional youth sports travel back on their schedules. What did they miss most? Did they miss the crazy practice schedules? The eye-popping expense of professional coaches and itinerant programming? Did they miss the exhaustion of running multiple children multiple places without a real chance to breathe? Probably not.
They missed their people.
They missed the ways they connect with others, including their children, around the fields, rinks, and courts where they play. They missed hanging poolside after games at an out-of-town tournament with a full cooler and kids running amok in the halls. They missed complaining with buddies about the coaching decisions and horrible reffing. They missed the shared excitement over positive wins and the drown-your-sorrows moments if they lost. They worried they missed time their children might need to get involved in that next level of connection (high school or college) and they needed to get things going quickly. The atmosphere of Friday night lights and Saturday college game days is so alluring, and people want to be a part of that experience. Even if the chances are slim their child will ever be in a uniform on those highest-level fields or courts, it is worth the pursuit because so many of their kind of people are doing it too.
Parents of young children (especially 9-13) got right back into youth sports craziness because they missed connection.
Beyond that, they are desperate to connect over something positive. Positivity in youth sports means success so parents have been busy putting kids on, taking kids off, moving kids to teams and programs that give them a warm, fuzzy feeling. They find the winning teams, the winningest coaches, they bribe for success by paying for goals because success feels better than bad-news-bears athletes who don’t do anything worth sharing. Adults are clamoring for a chance to feel that other driving emotion of PRIDE so they can connect positively with a successful child or talk proudly about them with their friends.
They would much rather spend time celebrating with others than sitting sadly in a negative feeling because things are not going well. It’s human. The consumerism of youth sports is all too good at exploiting human need…especially if those needy humans have purchasing power.
In all of this, people have chosen connecting to sport above connecting to people. They use the sport as an excuse to spend time with their children and to sidle up next to other sport-loving folks, but then they make the move-my-kid-to-the-next-best-team decision and they start over with community-building.
By the time children have grown and gone, parents are without that built-in human connection around a field, court or rink, and the connection to community that truly drove their decisions in the first place is the one thing they are left without.
Copyright 2022 Meagan Frank
Choosing to Grow
Team Adult Playbook