Youth Sports Arms Race

The article about the youth sport "arms race" in our country hit home (Daily Camera, Nov. 23). It talks about how the hyper-competitive atmosphere around youth sports results in fewer children participating. Those that do participate spend an enormous amount of money on gear, trainers, travel and program fees. These children and their families forgo other activities like family meals and non-sports interests. These aren't the only downsides.

When my youngest child was in third grade he told me he wanted to play basketball. Several of his friends were on a YMCA-sponsored team that practiced at his school. The YMCA coordinator told me that the team was full, but all I had to do was ask the coach if they had room for one more player and they would be able to add him to the roster. My son's friends told him to come to the first practice and tell the coach he wanted to play.

The next day we walked in to the gym at his school. All the kids and their parents were gathered around getting organized for the season. The coach looked at my son and said "We don't want him on the team. This is a competitive team!" My son and I both turned beet red with humiliation. I was hoping the coach was joking, but when I tried to question him, my son insisted we leave. One of the parents followed us out and explained that these kids had been playing together for "years" and they were going to "win it all" that season.

As we retreated from the gym, I wondered what it was they were hoping to win and why they were so sure that my son's participation would take that away from them. I see the coach around town and still, 8 years later, I have a visceral response. He probably doesn't remember that day or who we are. His focus was on winning the third-grade basketball league, not on the feelings of one ordinary boy.

Participation in kid sports has lifelong benefits. Physically, it helps develop hand-eye coordination, strength and fitness. With regard to character development, young people learn about teamwork, sportsmanship and hard work. Most importantly they have fun, and make friends in a healthy and safe environment. None of this happens when winning trumps all else, when only the contribution of the super stars is valued.

The increased emphasis on winning in youth sports is reflective of our culture. We idolize professional athletes, movie stars and wealthy business people. We act like their success implies strength of character. Then we are shocked when some of the most successful turn out to be cheaters, drug addicts or criminals. Ordinary people like teachers, veterans, workers and the elderly are rarely honored for integrity, hard work and service to the greater good. Maybe we just don't care about character any more?

We are teaching kids that they are either winners or losers, and that as long as you are a winner nothing else matters. I shudder to think what long-term injury this is doing to our society.