"Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children" by Tom Farrey was one of the most fascinating sports books I have read in a long time, and it would make an amazing Father's Day gift.
Actually, I would like to send a copy to every dad (and mom) out there who harbors fantasies of athletic glory for their children. I have a simple message: Get over it.
When I launched the Varsity Dad blog, its mission was simple: How to raise an all-star sports fan. I intentionally side-stepped raising an all-star athlete, because I think it is delusional at best and debilitating at worst.
Farrey's book both re-affirmed my perspective and enlightened me to angles of it that I hadn't previously considered.
First, a disclosure: Tom and I worked together at ESPN.com back in the mid-1990s. We got along very well back then -- for an ex-newspaper guy, he "got it" about online media. He has since gone on to fame as part of ESPN the Mag and, most recently, the "E:60" TV show, but he remains someone whose work I really admire. I consider him a friend.
I tagged quite a few details throughout the book as I was reading it, but one stood out as simple, yet profound:
"Kids play, then become fans. Not the other way around."
There are some pretty disturbing things in the book: Youth-sports participation levels are plummeting, particularly in the inner cities. State, local and national government and non-government organizations are gutting sports, park and rec budgets.
Farrey found incredibly compelling individual stories to tell to highlight some of the larger trends. I wanted to loathe these people; thanks to Farrey's fair portrayal, I found myself pitying them.
(That's not to say I didn't find a handful of people to loathe, among them Bobby Dodd, the sketchy impresario of AAU -- perhaps the biggest scourge in youth sports in the last century -- and the various charlatans, like Hoop Scoop's Clark Francis, who "rank" youth basketball players, then box out responsibility by claiming cost-of-doing-business.)
The book is cleverly divided into 14 "ages" as chapters, with each representing a fascinating facet of the youth sports machine that roughly corresponds to that age. Yes, there is plenty to talk about for "Age 1" or "Age 2" or "Age 3"; youth sports mania doesn't start in elementary school. If you believe some of the stories in the book, if you are just thinking about youth sports then, you are already helplessly behind if you want your child to be a star.
And I guess that's the point: Do you want your child to be a sports star? Even if your motivation is to earn your child a college scholarship (which is insanely competitive, usually not that much money, usually debilitating to the kid and, more often than not, going to parents who may not need the help), you are selling out your kid's youth -- not to mention putting a lot more money in than you will probably get back in scholarship funding -- for something that likely isn't worth it.
Don't get me wrong: I want my kid to play sports. At their best, I think youth sports build confidence, help physical development (in this day and age, almost synonymous with "avoid obesity") and teach the value of teamwork, hard work and sportsmanship -- at least when they are taught by people who know what they are doing, which is often a rough assumption.
I played youth sports. Growing up in Montgomery County, Maryland, EVERYONE played soccer. We had a robust open youth league. I played from 1st grade until 4th grade, two seasons per year. My team was horrible. I should know: I was the goalie, and responsible for much of that horribleness.
When I was in 4th grade, a new kid came to our elementary school, and he was like this man-child all-world goalie. He joined our open, neighborhood team of friends and I was quickly displaced. It worked out OK: We actually won our division title, which after those years of winlessness felt pretty good.
Then the super-goalie left for a "select" team, as did our best offensive player. A few of us were recruited to play on another "select" team with kids from another school and neighborhood. It was supposed to be a merger, but we were basically filler for the team's finances; I rarely played. Even the cool jersey -- with collars and names on the back! -- had my last name misspelled. I lasted one year, then hopped to another select team (warm-up suits with my name on the back!), lasted one more year, then gave up soccer. I wasn't good enough, and I didn't enjoy the pressure of "select."
I didn't pick up youth sports again until high school, when I joined my high school's "no-cuts" rowing team, which was an amazing experience.
Still, in way way way distant hindsight, those early formative years playing in the "open" soccer leagues feel really fun; as we got older -- and this is just in the span of elementary school, mind you -- it got so much less fun, first with a dictatorial coach who led us to our one and only division title, then the whole "select" experience.
Do I harbor fantasies of my kid being some sort of athletic superstar? Of course, but only because I am a huge sports fan. But he won't be the next Tim Tebow or the next Jordan Farmar or the next Ryan Braun.
After reading Farrey's book, I'm not even sure he will make it through elementary school sports leagues. And I'm not even sure I want him to.
I will push him to enjoy sports on his terms, but even if he was insanely passionate about playing one particular sport -- something I will attempt to keep from happening, frankly -- I think that part of being a parent is managing your child's sports experience just as actively as you would manage their education or their health or their manners or their ability to deal with life as it comes in any form.
To the extent that I want my kid to be a really good sports fan, I similarly don't want to inflict my own interests on him; if he doesn't want to be a sports fan, that's fine with me. To the extent that "kids play, then they become fans," I want to make sure he has the chance to be exposed to all sorts of play. He doesn't have to play pee-wee football to love football; maybe it's just throwing the ball around with his old man or his friends in the neighborhood.
If they can find the time in their (over-)scheduled youth-sports lives to play backyard football. Because that's an open question. The real shame will be if there isn't anyone around to play with him. I'm hoping that Farrey's book sparks a conversation about what parents can do -- and should do -- to encourage their child to participate in sports.
As you can tell, reading the book prompted a lot of introspection, and I'm not even close to thinking through all of the various factors. What I know is that it doesn't make me want to inflict the hyper-competitive youth-sports culture on my kid, but it does make me want to run outside and play with him on a beautiful spring day.
"Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children" by Tom Farrey is published by ESPN Books and available at bookstores (or you can just click here for Amazon.) Tom's site for the book can be found at TomFarrey.com.
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