Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Slow Children Playing: A Book Review of "Game On" by Tom Farrey

"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 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

Let's keep the discussion going in the Comments section. I will try to post them as often as I can.

-- D.S.


BD said...

I work with hundreds of athletes that aspire to play college sports and have found that more often than not the best players are the biggest fans of their sport. If they weren't huge fans, they wouldn't follow their sporting dreams to schools far off the TV map.

The vast majority of college athletes compete in environments that seem foreign to the common fan obsessed with the BCS and Final 4 schools (such as, cough, Florida). As a result we focus to much attention on the athletes that develop into the Tim Tebows of the world.

Far more common are real fans that have the desire to practice, lift weights, train and above all play their sport no matter what the environment that rise to the top. If they don't, they still will have had the enjoyment of doing what they love throughout their youth.

Unknown said...

Another often underrated thing about playing sports at a young age is that you can play them at an old(er) age. I know that sounds simple, but learning the fundamentals of a handful of sports goes a long way toward networking, socialization, and, well, fun once adulthood (and its myriad responsibilities) rolls around. The simple pleasures of playing sports are often the highlight of my week. Tennis gives me and a college buddy the motivation to see each other once a month. I golf with co-workers and investors. I play hoops with people from my church. Yes, I could probably just meet all these people for lunch or coffee, but what's the fun in that?

Mike Hume said...

Enjoyed the point of view on this and will definitely pick up the book. In Virginia, there were threats to make kids in high school pay out of pocket to play varsity athletics due to a school budget crunch. It's amazing the disparity in thinking about sports, particularly at the high school level. Some teams will play out their seasons as though they were a professional team, with more administrative support than the White House, while others view them as a happy diversion that has no impact on kids' lives and is merely sapping resources from the budget.

One of the first columns I wrote for my college paper was about the extremes of t-ball, how some parents are willing to brawl over an umpires call, while other leagues don't keep score and let kids run the bases even when their out. I still firmly believe that the latter is the late-blooming result of a socialist spy-game initated by the KGB.

There's a lot of material in youth sports that deserves to be addressed. I'm glad it's getting some play outside of community papers.

JW said...

There is certainly a fine line between the benefits of youth sports and the danger of pushing your kids too far. I believe there are tremendous advantages to participating in sports throughout your youth, as well as into adulthood. Especially for female athletes. They develop self-confidence and leadership skills when given the opportunity to be a part of athletics. And, as you mentioned, kids develop sportsmanship, teamwork and what seems so important these days: They are ACTIVE! When the norm these days seems to be watching television, or playing on the computer and video games. As these kids get into adulthood, they also will find that many employers like to hire former athletes for the reasons listed above.

On the other side of that fine line are the parents who are indeed selling their kids out for the hope of gaining that college scholarship. Unfortunately, most of them are uneducated on what the reality is for earning scholarship money. They only see dollar signs and are, perhaps, missing what a true college athletic career could be for their kid. So, they push their kid to choose one sport and invest so much time and money in that single activity that many times the kid is totally burned out by the end of their high school career. And ultimately, loses any interest in going outside to "play catch" or have any imagination to just "play" outside with their friends at all.

David J. Hirsh said...

Dan, thanks for reviewing Tom Farrey's book. I heard him on the radio out here in Seattle this morning and with a 10-year old son playing All-Star baseball this summer, I was very interested in what he had to say about his research. Fortunately for me, your blog popped up on a simple search for book reviews.

As parents, we're stoked our son excels in and loves the game. Since he also excels in and loves soccer, surfing, and snowboarding, we are absolutely opposed to the forces of specialization that appear to have taken over youth sports. To accomplish this, we regularly remind ourselves that his participation in sports is about his desire to play and his success relates directly to HIS ability and motivation, not ours.

As a result, we have found a happy place where we can simply enjoy watching our son express himself physically and enjoy the rewards of his own ability, preparation, and ebullience. Maybe our approach is rare for the parents of a successful young athlete. For sure, we are well aware of the anecdotal stories of overbearing little league-parents. But honestly, we have not seen much of that in our circles.

Instead, I think when parents put their kids on a select team, they believe they are just "supporting" the success of their children out of love. They are merely "wanting the best" for their children by giving them even more chances to succeed. I firmly believe that the non-school "travel ball," "club," and "select" systems of youth team sports arose partially as a quasi-exploitative response to that parental love. As far as I can tell (at least for baseball in our area), each of the Select clubs is attached to a business (a baseball "academy") with a brick and mortar facility and specialty coaches galore). And these businesses tread a thin line between marketing coaching services and making unfulfillable promises ("eight of our 2007 18U Select graduates are now playing Division I ball, including four in the Pac 10" as one local team announces on the web).

And after all, what loving parent wouldn't want to enable more success by giving their child access to coaching and training in a more serious (but perhaps less "recreational") setting provided by these club, select, and travel teams? From the prespective of a parent staring down that reality right now, that pathway is presented to me as a natural progression for my child.

For now we'll resist Selects unless the boy asks to play into the Fall after All-Stars tournament play ends. Hell, he's aware of the sacrifice he's making by giving up surfing time to play baseball all summer.

After reading your review, I reserved a copy of Tom's book at our local library and can't wait to read it. But I'll be disappointed if this ends up another "blame those unrealisitic parents" pieces of media. I think the myriad sources of media that feed a child's motivation to play sports all have a role in the blame game if indeed there's blame to be doled out. And those sources include the athletic gear companies and sports media, including yours and Tom's employer, ESPN.