It’s a summer evening in 2011 and I am 7 years old. My family has just finished eating dinner, and my older brothers and I head to the backyard. For the next two hours, my brothers teach me how to kick a ball with the inside of my foot and dribble.
Around the same time, I began to play recreational soccer with girls from my school. We practiced just once a week — I’m not sure if you could even call it soccer practice though, because we spent most of our time doing somersaults and cartwheels. Nevertheless, I learned how to play soccer, and I began to love the beautiful game.
Fast forward to 2019, and I’m on a competitive soccer team that practices 4-5 times a week. I rarely have time to kick around in the backyard, and instead lift weights and run sprints at a training center. I still love soccer, but I miss the spontaneity of pick-up games with my friends and kicking the ball around with my brothers. Learning to play soccer in such a fun environment fostered my love of the game, but many people do not have the same experiences. Unfortunately, youth sports have increasingly become more competitive and less accessible. I believe youth sports should be about fostering sportsmanship and love of the game, but they have instead evolved into a highly competitive world.
Playing youth sports is supposed to teach children teamwork, leadership, communication and sportsmanship. The values cultivated by youth sports can benefit people for their entire lives. Personally, I learned how to be a good teammate and motivate others from youth soccer. I still use these skills, not only in soccer but at school. Such benefits can be missed out on, though, when parents and coaches place too much pressure on players and make sports hyper competitive.
With rising college costs, many parents pressure their children to play sports in hope of a college athletic scholarship. This is very unlikely, though, as only 2% of high school athletes earn college scholarships according to the National Collegiate Athletics Association. Still, many parents and coaches encourage players to practice several times a week, play competitive sports from a young age, and specialize in one sport. This overwhelming pressure from parents and coaches can result in players quitting sports, as youth soccer participation has declined 7% among 6-18 year olds according to the Aspen Institute.Thus, children are completely missing out on the teamwork and leadership that sports can teach.
As youth sports have become more competitive, they have also become less accessible. The rise of competitive travel teams and expensive equipment has made youth sports “pay to play,” which excludes lower socioeconomic demographics. In fact, American families with $100,000 or more in annual income provide nearly 35% of youth soccer players, while families with $25,000 or less in annual income provide 11% of players, according to The New York Times. Understandably, families cannot afford the expensive fees, as club soccer can cost upwards of $5,000 a year. Many children miss out on a myriad of benefits from youth sports, simply because their parents cannot pay for them to play.
I am very thankful for the privilege of playing youth sports and am sad that many children will not play. I credit my continued participation in competitive soccer to the stress-free environment I learned to play in. After all, I don’t remember the goals I scored at a 1st grade recreational soccer game or the amazing pass I made in a 4th grade competitive game. I remember the hard work, but more importantly, the fun I had in youth soccer.