My kids are young, but we live in a town that takes its winter sports very seriously (possibly because winter lasts for ten months, difficult as that is to believe at the moment). That means that one of my four-year-olds started skiing at two; that at nine, my son has been playing hockey for five years; and that when the conversation slowed down at pick-up during mountain-biking camp last week, I heard another kid ask mine, “so, what’s the highest you’ve ever come in in a ski race?” Coaches lean towards ex-olympians and former college goalies, and when you suggest to them, as one man quoted in today’s Wall Street Journal apparently did, that travel teams and practices are interfering with family time, some of them look at you in confusion. After all, when Mom’s your coach and Dad’s on the scoreboard, how much more family can you get?
But when it hits the WSJ, you have to believe that some parents may be ready to resist the the craziness of youth sports–and some coaches may respect–or even encourage–putting family traditions ahead of extra training time. Ironically, the famed Dutch national soccer club Ajax–now known for its intense youth academy and star factory–has known this all along.
In May, Michael Sokolove reported on Ajax and its youth academy (known as De Toekomst, or “The Future”) for the New York Times Magazine, and amidst any number of dubious (if successful) soccer-star developing practices (the drilling, the lack of team spirit, the coldblooded dismissal of kids who fail to make the grade) I was struck by one single thing: their 12-year-old possible future stars spend less time playing every week than my 8-year-old B-level hockey player spent on the ice last season–and the truth is, as mush as I joked about our town’s emphasis on winter sports in that first paragraph, we’re not really a serious hockey community: you can tell, because we can’t actually afford to keep our ice rink open year-round. “For the young ones, we think [the smaller amount of play time] is enough,” the director of the academy says. “They have a private life, a family life. We don’t want to take that from them.”
When even older players at a Dutch “star factory” play less than a regular American kid, you know the parents who are turning down elite teams and saying no to extra summer practice sessions are on to something. The beautiful thing about the WSJ article was the suggestion that coaches may be listening. When one parent told the coach of an elite travel team that his son was scheduled to attend summer camp instead of hockey camp because “my son loves hockey, but hockey is not his life,” the coach respected the family’s decision. (Although I’m not exactly sure how a 7-week-long summer camp constitutes “family time” for a 9-year-old.) And more and more, youth development coordinators for sports like hockey, baseball and soccer are suggesting that we push our players too hard, too young (a topic I wrote about for Slate’s XX Factor blog earlier this year). I hope the coaches in my kids’ future are listening–and if they’re not, I plan to be the one to speak up.