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Are Youth Sports Out of Control?

Some young athletes are getting serious about sports at an early age. Is that causing other kids to quit?  

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    Samantha Burkett was 4 years old when she fell in love with soccer. She loved the teamwork and the strategy. She loved the running and the feel of the ball on her foot. “It made me so happy to play,” she says. “Soccer had my heart forever.”

    Before long, the sport also had most of her time. She practiced three times a week with her club team in Illinois. Tournaments took up the weekends. Her team traveled all over the country. They went to Missouri and Indiana, to Arizona and North Carolina. College coaches came to her games.

    For Samantha, soccer wasn’t just an activity. It was a full-time job. And she’s not alone. 

    Welcome to the new world of youth sports.

    Samantha Burkett was just 4 years old when she fell in love with soccer. She loved everything about it—the teamwork, the strategy, the running, and the feel of the ball on her foot. “It made me so happy to play,” she recalls. “Soccer had my heart forever.”

    Soon, the sport also had most of her time. She practiced three times a week. She was on a club team in Illinois. Tournaments took up the weekends. Her team traveled all over the country. They went to Missouri, Indiana, Arizona, and North Carolina. College coaches came to her games.

    For Samantha, soccer was more than an activity. It was a full-time job. The same is true for many young athletes.

    Welcome to the new world of youth sports.

    Samantha Burkett was just 4 years old when she fell in love with soccer. She loved everything about it—the teamwork, the strategy, the running, and the feel of the ball on her foot. “It made me so happy to play,” she recalls. “Soccer had my heart forever.”

    Before long, the sport also had most of her time. She practiced three times a week with her club team in Illinois, and on the weekends, her team traveled all over the country to compete in tournaments. They competed in Missouri, Indiana, Arizona, and North Carolina. College coaches scouting for recruits attended her games.

    For Samantha, soccer wasn’t just an activity—it was a full-time job. And she’s not alone.

    Welcome to the new world of youth sports.

Getting Serious

    A generation ago, being an athlete meant playing on school teams. There was soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter, and tennis in the spring. Today, more athletes are getting serious at an early age—and that has some experts worried. Travel teams like Samantha’s are growing quickly. But overall, fewer kids are playing team sports. Why? 

    Some experts say that there’s too much pressure to compete at a young age. 

    On some travel teams, 6-year-olds play for national championships. Websites rank athletes on their skills in elementary school. And last October, a major college offered a scholarship to a football player—in sixth grade. Kids who can’t keep up or just want to play for fun get frustrated. They often drop out altogether.

    But some kids don’t even get a chance to play in the first place. Youth sports have turned into a big business. Every year, American families spend about $17 billion on their kids’ sports. Samantha’s dad says her soccer costs added up to about $8,000 every year.

    Not surprisingly, many families can’t pay for their kids to join travel teams like Samantha’s. And those kids often decide not to play at all.

    A generation ago, being an athlete meant playing on school teams. Soccer was in the fall. Basketball was in the winter. Tennis was in the spring. Today, more athletes are getting serious at an early age. That has some experts worried. Travel teams are growing quickly. Even so, fewer kids are playing team sports. Why?

    Some experts say that too much pressure is put on young athletes. On some travel teams, 6-year-olds play for national championships. Websites rank athletes in elementary school. And last October, a college gave a scholarship to a football player who was only in sixth grade. Some kids can’t keep up. Or they just want to play for fun. These kids get frustrated. They often quit sports.

    But some kids don’t even get a chance to play. Youth sports are a big business. Every year, American families spend about $17 billion on their kids’ sports. Samantha’s dad spent about $8,000 a year on Samantha’s soccer costs.

    Many families can’t pay for their kids to join travel teams. So those kids often don’t play at all.

    A generation ago, being an athlete meant playing on school teams: soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter, and tennis in the spring. Today, more athletes are devoting themselves to a single sport at an early age, which worries some experts. Travel teams like Samantha’s are growing quickly, but overall, fewer kids are participating in team sports. Why?

    Some experts say that too much pressure is being put on young athletes to excel in their sport. On some travel teams, 6-year-olds play for national championships. Websites rank elementary school-age athletes on their skills. And last October, a football player who was only in sixth grade was offered a scholarship to a big-time sports university. Kids who can’t keep up or who just want to play for fun get frustrated and often drop out.

    But some kids never get a chance to play in the first place. Youth sports have turned into a big business, and every year, American families spend about $17 billion on their kids’ sports. Samantha’s dad says her yearly soccer costs added up to about $8,000.

    Not surprisingly, many families can’t afford the costs associated with travel teams. Kids in these families often decide not to play at all.

Calling It Quits

    What about the teens who do stick with sports? One study found that 90 percent of top high school athletes love their sport. Samantha was one of them. She never complained about going to practice. When she wasn’t playing, she worked on her skills at home.

    But that high level of commitment comes at a cost. Many players give up other sports and activities. Every week, Samantha turned down invitations from friends. Her answer was always the same: “Sorry, I have to play soccer.”

    After a while, the game you love can turn into a grind. Some kids feel too much pressure and quit. Others hurt themselves by playing too hard. More than 3.5 million young athletes get injured each year. 

    That’s what happened to Samantha. She suffered three head injuries in a little over a year. As a sophomore, she had to give up soccer to protect her health. “I was always the soccer girl,” she says. “When that was taken away from me, I didn’t know who I was.”

    What about teens who stay with sports? A study found that 9 out of 10 love their sport. Samantha did! She didn’t mind practice. She even worked on her skills at home.

    But that kind of commitment comes at a cost. Many players give up other sports and activities. Every week, Samantha’s friends asked to spend time with her. Her answer? “Sorry, I have to play soccer.”

    After a while, the game you love can turn into a grind. Some kids feel too much pressure. So they quit. Others put their bodies through too much. They get hurt. More than 3.5 million young athletes get injured each year. 

    That’s what happened to Samantha. She got three head injuries. So she had to stop playing soccer to protect her health. That was in her sophomore year. “I was always the soccer girl,” she says. “When that was taken away from me, I didn’t know who I was.”

    What about the teens who stick it out? One study found that 90 percent of elite high school athletes love their sport. Samantha was one of them. She didn’t mind practices, and when she wasn’t on the field, she worked on her skills at home.

    But a high-level commitment like that comes at a cost, which includes giving up other sports and activities. Every week, Samantha’s friends invited her to spend time with them, but her response was always the same: “Sorry, I have to play soccer.”

    After a while, the game you love can turn into a grind. Some kids feel like they are under mountains of pressure and quit. Others hurt themselves by putting their bodies through too much. More than 3.5 million young athletes are injured each year. 

    That’s what happened to Samantha, who suffered three head injuries in a little over a year. As a sophomore, she had to give up soccer to protect her health. “I was always the soccer girl,” she says. “When that was taken away from me, I didn’t know who I was.”

Chance of Fun

    Now, a year later, Samantha’s doing better. She competes on the tennis team—where she’s less likely to get hit in the head. She’s excited about college again. And she wouldn’t change a second of the time she spent on the soccer field. “It was 100 percent worth it,” she says. 

    Most kids aren’t as serious about sports as Samantha. But that doesn’t mean they need to sit and watch sports on TV. Experts say you should play at the level that makes you happy. That might mean a travel team. It might mean your school team. Or it might just mean a pick-up game at the park. 

    And while you’re at it, try different sports. Playing more than one reduces your risk of injury. It also increases the chance of having fun. In the end, is there really any other reason to play?

    Now, a year later, Samantha’s OK. She’s on the tennis team. (She’s less likely to get hit in the head in tennis.) She’s excited about college. She’s glad she played soccer. “It was 100 percent worth it,” she says. 

    Most kids aren’t as serious about sports as Samantha. But they can still play sports. Experts say you should play at the level that makes you happy. That might mean a travel team. It might mean your school team. Or it might just mean a pick-up game at the park. 

    Also, try playing more than one sport. You’re less likely to be injured that way. And you’re more likely to have fun. Isn’t that the best reason to play?

    Now, a year later, Samantha’s doing better. She competes on the tennis team—where she’s less likely to get hit in the head—and she’s excited about college again.

    Samantha has no regrets about her time on the soccer field. “It was 100 percent worth it,” she says. 

    Most kids aren’t as dedicated to sports as Samantha is, but that doesn’t mean they have to be limited to watching sports on TV. Experts say you should play at the level that makes you happy, which might mean a travel team, your school team, or just a pick-up game at the park. 

     And while you’re at it, try different sports. Playing more than one reduces your risk of injury. It also increases your chances of having fun. In the end, is there really any other reason to play?

Courtesy of Family (Samantha); The Washington Post (Headline); Kevin D. Liles/The New York Times/Redux (Tourney)

Serious Business
Some travel team tournaments now look like pro sporting events.

ACTIVITY: 
5 Questions About
Youth Sports

What to do: Answer the questions below. Use full sentences.

What to do: Answer the questions below. Use full sentences.

What to do: Answer the questions below. Use full sentences.

Why are so many kids dropping out of sports or choosing not to play?

Why are so many kids dropping out of sports or choosing not to play?

Why are so many kids dropping out of sports or choosing not to play?

How much money do American families spend on kids’ sports each year? 

How much money do American families spend on kids’ sports each year? 

How much money do American families spend on kids’ sports each year? 

Who is Samantha Burkett? 

Who is Samantha Burkett? 

Who is Samantha Burkett? 

When did Samantha start playing soccer, and when did she have to stop?  

When did Samantha start playing soccer, and when did she have to stop?  

When did Samantha start playing soccer, and when did she have to stop?  

What can help keep young athletes safe and happy? 

What can help keep young athletes safe and happy? 

What can help keep young athletes safe and happy? 

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