What Would You Pay for Sports?

Tandem surfing competition we happened upon in Hawaii--so cool!

Tandem surfing competition we happened upon in Hawaii–so cool!

This fall will be a great quarter for children’s sports programs as Olympic hopefuls register in droves. Participating in athletics fosters many positive qualities in children, but greatness comes at a cost. Watching the Olympics has left me wondering: how far would we go for our children’s success in sports?

I’m not delusional enough to think we are raising a future Olympian. Yet I did gymnastics for 8 years, at no small cost to my parents. You don’t even have to be good at sports for them to get expensive, so it helps to think through your parenting approach to extra-curriculars.

The Price

Those Olympic athletes have arrived at their destination though unimaginable hard work, training, and talent. Their journeys have also been fueled by lots and lots of money. That doesn’t mean they’re all from wealthy families, or that only the wealthy make it that far. Sponsorship, equipment donations, or fundraising can help defray the costs. But even normal participation in childhood sports costs a pretty penny as coaching, equipment, travel, and fees all add up over time.

It’s not just sports where the costs can escalate. It could be music (my parents are musicians, so I should know), art, theater, or any pursuit involving professional lessons, specialized equipment, and other ongoing costs.

Though I naturally wish to divert all discretionary funds toward college, I also want my kids to participate activities that interest them. Endeavors like sports and music teach discipline, teamwork, and sacrifice. They will use parts of their brain school might not engage.  And they can establish a degree of health and fitness that carries over into adulthood.

There is incredible value in extracurricular activities, but that does not mean they’re invaluable—i.e., I will not pay any price for them. For example, we would never go into debt for sports. We will not jeopardize financial goals we’ve already determined, like how much to save for college or give to charities. Those are our family boundaries; what are yours?

The Pain

The high cost of elite achievement isn’t just monetary. My 8 years of moderate training left me with nagging back, wrist, and elbow problems. Had I trained at a higher level, the damage would most likely have been worse.

I remember my dad wanting me to quit gymnastics once I reached a higher level, because he was afraid of injury. At age 13 I dislocated my elbow and chipped a bone, requiring surgery. The long-term effects of the injury have been minor, but I’ll never forget having a bone reset.

Major injuries aren’t the only cause for concern. Pediatricians are reporting increasing rates of overuse injuries. Kids are training longer, harder, and more frequently and sustaining injuries unrelated to any specific incident such as my fall.

Why are kids so prone to over-training? One factor is the hope of scholarships. With college tuition skyrocketing, parents and kids alike are looking to sports as their meal (and tuition) ticket. Even if you’re not counting on this, other parents are, which makes the sport more competitive.

In the end, lots of time and money is spent on what’s essentially a gamble. Whether the child will be good enough, want to continue, and will avoid injury is harder to predict than index fund growth. I’m placing more hopes for covering college costs in a 529 than a sport.

The Time

In a culture finally noticing our need for simplicity, parents’ schedules are jam-packed with shuttling kids to and from activities. Even if your family follows the conventional wisdom of one sport per season per kid, that can mean three different activities if you have three kids. Multiply that times 3-5 practices a week and forget side-hustling, or simplicity. You’re an unpaid Uber driver.

While sacrificing time for your kids is normal, revolving your entire lives around sports schedules needn’t be. I hear stories all the time of family members missing milestone events like baptisms and weddings because of children’s sports practices.

Madeline Levine’s studies in The Price of Privilege found affluent children to be at high risk of developing emotional disorders and risky behaviors. Some reasons include being over-scheduled by their parents, not learning to manage free time (because they have none), and being pressured to succeed in too many areas. We want our children to try their best, but we don’t want to pressure them into success.

The Antidote

Here are a few parent-approved tactics for reclaiming your time and money from sports.

  1. Set limits ahead of time. One extracurricular per season per kid is a good starting point.
  2. Take a season off. Summer may be a good time to lay low. Off-season allows for other activities such as travel, trips to the pool, or playing with friends.
  3. Let the child choose. Just because you were an all-star football player doesn’t mean Johnny wants to be one, too. Wait until kids are old enough to express an interest in an activity. With rare exceptions, your kid isn’t going to get a huge leg up in sports by starting at age 2 or 3. I’ve heard of 2 year olds in teeball. What? They just learned how to walk!
  4. Encourage backyard sports. Go shoot some hoops, play catch, or turn cartwheels with your kid to give them low-key sports exposure. When they have friends over, have some basic sports equipment like a balls, bats, and mitts so they can play with the neighborhood kids.
  5. Stay local. Stick with local, not traveling teams, if you’re trying to limit the cost and time associated with sports.
  6. Ask for recommendations. If you don’t want your 5-year-old in a Dance Moms scenario, wearing obscene amounts of make-up and developing an eating disorder while you defuse cat-fights in the waiting room–get a recommendation!

I admire and respect Olympians immensely, and I can’t imagine how  amazing and supportive their parents must have been. I also can’t say what I’d do if I ever found myself in their situation. But for now, I hope my kids can gain the benefits of extra-curriculars without paying a high price in areas we value such as relationships, volunteering, and unstructured play.

How has your family approached sports? Any advice from seasoned parents is welcome!

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34 Responses to “What Would You Pay for Sports?”

  1. Tonya says :

    I’m always talking about this with friends. When I was a kid in the 70s/80s, we just did stuff like little league and played multiple sports. That doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Now it’s all about one sport and club/elite/travel teams, which cost a LOT!. I see it all the time here where I live, for instance with beach volleyball. I trained a girl who was good, but not good enough to make the high school team because she hadn’t been playing club since birth. How can well-rounded kids, or kids with limited funds compete. And I do see burnout as well. I really don’t know the answer or how it will change, and I can really say either because I don’t have kids.

    • Kalie says :

      Thanks for sharing your experience. I agree that it was once more feasible to be involved in multiple sports or activities, and less intensely competitive. I also played band instruments and was in Girl Scouts for a while.

  2. Apathy Ends says :

    We played whatever sports we wanted to growing up, my parents encouraged and found ways to pay for it as they got increasingly expensive (Hockey is ridiculously expensive until you start playing in high school).

    The one thing they wouldn’t stand for was missing practice or quitting, it was always about the commitment. I remember my dad dragging me out of bed at 6AM on Saturdays to go to hockey practice, thinking about it now I’m sure he didn’t want to go either but always did!

    • Matt says :

      I was going to say something very similar. I grew up playing hockey, which is brutal both in costs and time. The equipment is expensive and you grow out of it and need to buy everything every year or two when growing up. Add to that the fact that you are now getting up at 5 or 6 on Saturday or Sunday mornings to trek out to practice.

      Looking back, I very much appreciate the time and money that my parents were willing to give up to allow me to play growing up. I actually recently joined an adult league and am getting lots of enjoyment out of that, so even though I never got scholarships or made money off of it, it is still paying dividends in happiness.

    • Kalie says :

      I must say I’m glad my son outgrew his interest in hockey quickly! I definitely appreciate my parents’ sacrifices that allowed me to do gymnastics–also a pricey sport. I was able to use my skills to coach gymnastics during high school and college, which made for a nice part time job. Maybe one day I’ll barter coaching for lessons if my daughter wants to take gymnastics.

    • Kalie says :

      That’s cool you have the perspective to appreciate your dad’s dedication now. I’m very grateful for my parents spending the time and money for me to do gymnastics. I agree that if sports is going to teach character qualities, following through on the commitment is important. It’s unfortunate that some sports are so overly competitive for children now, though. That is a lot for a young kid to commit to!

  3. Amanda says :

    Great advice! I’ve limited my kids to one main paid sport per season and let them make their own choices. We’ve also always encouraged the backyard activities and sports, and actually focused more on those than the organized sports (swimming, playing football in the yard, basketball in the driveway, etc.) At one point, we were all taking Taekwondo, but the school allowed parents to go for free, so it didn’t cost us extra (so why not?).

    • Kalie says :

      That is awesome that the parents could take Taekwondo for free! Is that how you first got into it?

    • Josh says :

      This is the approach my wife & I plan on taking. Travel teams are off the agenda for sure. And we going to encourage backyard games with other friends.

      We are not opposed to organized sports, but it can get tough with multiple children and we want to spend our evenings as a family as much as possible. Backyard games allows the parents & children to interact.

    • Kalie says :

      I agree that we don’t want sports to copmletely replace family time. I do think there’s value when they’re older to letting them figure out the backyard sports without adults. They have to negotiate the rules, mediate conflict, etc. on their own. That’s something organized sports doesn’t really let them learn (though it has other lessons it teaches).

  4. DC YAM says :

    I was actually thinking about this today as I drove back from going up north. My wife and I were talking about friends who coached high school sports and it made me think of some of my buddies from high school whose families spent an incredible amount of money for them to play year-round soccer. Some tournaments even took place in Europe. But what did it really mean when it was all said and done? Most didn’t play in college and even the one or two who did played at very small D3 schools. It just seems like a waste of money but there is so much pressure around it that it’s tough to say no to your kids.

    • Kalie says :

      I don’t understand how people train for college sports, travel for games, and focus on their education all at once. You’d have to have a great scholarship for it to be worth it in my opinion.

      I’m sure these decisions will get more complicated as our kids get older. We’re trying to both think ahead and take things one step at a time.

  5. Amy says :

    Like you, I wouldn’t pay anything for sports, but I do want my daughter to be able to try and partipate in activities she enjoys. (It’s not really sports with her. She’s more interested in dance and theater.) I also would never let sports (or other activities) take over our family time, vacations, events, etc. I know people who do this, and it just seems very unfair to the rest of the family, and also somewhat short-sighted. (Attending a travel soccer game over a family birthday party or wedding, feels like misplaced priorities to me.)

    • Kalie says :

      That’s a great way to put it–it’s not very fair to the family as a whole, and short-sighted if it overshadows all else. I was very fortunate to take gymnastics at a place that was not overly competitive. That makes a huge difference.

  6. Hannah says :

    I did run in college, but I would agree with others to not count on any sort of financial gain from athletics.

    Our current thinking is that we’ll keep things very relaxed until a kid show special interest in a particular activity. When that happens we can evaluate how deep involvement in an activity fits into our life and their character development.

    Yesterday, we went on a hike as a family and I told Rob that my family never did that type of thing growing up. He said it was because we always played sports. Which is probably true.

    • Kalie says :

      I completely agree that we’ll need to keep re-evaluating as our kids get older. I like how you mentioned the factor of their character. That is so important and you can’t predict how sports involvement will influence that until you’re there.

  7. Dividends Down Under says :

    It is amazing when you think about how ‘deep’ the Olympians have been in their sports, they’ve been training for the last 4 years sure – but they’ve based their whole adult lives around this event. Tons of people, like you said, may have been training and not even make the team.

    We don’t have kids yet so I can’t say what we’ll do exactly, but probably along the tips you suggest. Limit it, and encourage cheaper ones.


    • Kalie says :

      It seems, too, that Olympians are now full-time athletes when perhaps in the past they weren’t. That’s led to amazing athletic advancement, but also sets the bar so high for sports involvement.

  8. Mrs. PIE says :

    Thanks for this, it resonates a lot with the way Mr. PIE and I think about kids sports.
    Our two kids do baseball in the spring – and that’s been it so far. That’s enough with at least two games plus practices for each kid each week. It’s a crazy time of year for us. The rest of the year they are skiing and hiking with us.
    I guess I’m lying a little, they both start swimming tonight, but that’s just once a week lessons – more a necessity than a sport in my mind.
    The thing that disturbs me the most about kids sports is the intensity and competitiveness. It makes no sense to me that whatever sport you choose is so intense. What’s wrong with playing once a week for the fun of it? Why does it have to be leagues and training and all that? the fun gets sucked out of it very fast – especially when you add in over zealous (downright rude, over competitive and obnoxious) coaches.

    • Kalie says :

      Thanks so much for sharing your experience as a mom of slightly older kids. I agree that the competitiveness is unsettling. We want our kids to enjoy sports and have fun, without a lot of pressure, angry parents, or “politics” of who gets to play. Maybe that’s unavoidable, but we’ll definitely try to find the programs that are a bit more relaxed, if possible.

  9. Emily says :

    We haven’t done sports other than swim lessons. I played tons of inexpensive Y soccer and basketball, but my daughter’s been more inclined to other pursuits. But now she wants to do gymnastics, and we’re worried about over-scheduling (she already does theater lessons and scouts) as well as adding one more expense. Part of me wants to make her choose. Part of me is glad for her to pick up something a bit more active.

    • Kalie says :

      I think the number of activities that’s doable for a family depends on many factors. I did girl scouts and gymnastics, until gymnastics became more than once a week. Then my parents had me choose. I also played several musical instruments, but that was non-negotiable for my music teacher parents.

  10. Ms. Montana says :

    We let the boys do karate for a year, but the schedule was tough and it’s year round. We have decided to wait till the kids are older and can do school activities. We really want to be able to travel with the kids. I know once they get older, have more friends, and are in more activities, it will be harder to get away. We did a 6 week road trip with them this summer, but that might not fly in 10 years.

    • Kalie says :

      Yes–we want to travel instead of doing a bunch of scheduled activities now while our kids are young, too! That is awesome you did the road trip. School activities make sense, since they’ll be sort of tied down to the school schedule anyway.

  11. Holly says :

    We are a one-sport-at-a-time family. We’re also a once-per-week family. Both of my kids are in gymnastics because it works well in those respects. They basically just attend a one-hour practice each week, and there are no meets. It’s all about exercise and improving their skills. My older daughter was invited to join the team, but the team met 3x per week for 2 hours each time. That’s 6 hours per week! She’s only seven, and that seemed ridiculous to me.

    • Kalie says :

      That’s great you’ve found a gym where they can practice without competing. And that you were able to say no to the team invite. I always wanted to do gymnastics without competing–I hated meets!

  12. Fruclassity (Ruth) says :

    Two of our daughters are extremely athletic, and overall, it is a good influence – great friends, great fitness, confidence, travel… But I think we’ve steered clear of the line where life hangs in the balance of a competition. “If it’s not fun anymore, quit,” I said to one daughter earlier this year. Instead, she switched coaches. We haven’t been able to provide all of the finances needed, so they’ve had to be creative and ready to seek out grants and bursaries. No regrets here. We gave them opportunities to explore different sports when they were young, and they chose what they loved. Our youngest chose not pursue any sport. All good : )

    • Kalie says :

      I was hoping to hear from you since I knew at least one of your daughters was very athletic, so thanks for sharing your experience! That’s awesome they’ve pursued their sports at a high level, while you were able to avoid extremes. That’s also great that they’ve been creative and pursued financial support elsewhere when needed. I’m glad to hear all this is possible!

  13. Harmony says :

    I was involved in All-Star Cheerleading and it was very expensive. You had to pay gym fees, buy your own uniform (including matching sneakers, socks, bow, and makeup), and come up with the travel expenses to compete all over the country. Fortunately, I got involved with this type of cheerleading when I was older and had a job, so my parents didn’t have to foot the bill. I’ve been asked when we will sign up Tornado for cheerleading, and usually just respond, “not yet.” We’re definitely not doing anything so expensive and time-demanding with her at a young age – she’s four right now. If she does want to start cheerleading, we’ll sign her up for local little loop or school teams.

    The kids are young right now, so we’re trying to focus on one sport per season, as you suggested above. Goofball has tried out soccer and tee-ball. Tornado likes gymnastics lessons (once per week). I did find out that our health insurance provides benefits cards that can be used to pay for things like gym memberships . . . and the kids sports! Pretty awesome 🙂

    • Kalie says :

      That is awesome that your health insurance helps out with gym memberships and kids sports. It really does make sense, too! Thanks for sharing your sports experience. That’s impressive you were able to practice, compete, and work to pay for your expenses.

  14. Our Next Life says :

    You actually made me feel a little better about my nagging back pain from figure skating as a kid… it makes sense that a lot of us bear those scars! (And so sorry you had to have a bone reset — that sounds awful.) We don’t have kids, as you know, but I think we’d have similar boundaries if we did. Unless the kid just turned out to be some incredible prodigy, we’d try to keep sports in moderation. Of course, that said, I benefited a ton from doing a traveling sport as a kid — it was great for exposing me to different places and people, though I’m a little scared to think about how much my parents must have spent on that!

    • Kalie says :

      My elbow is nothing compared to the back problems I’ve had from gymnastics. Sorry to hear you experience that, too.

      Seeing new places is a great perk of traveling sports that I hadn’t thought of. We do plan to keep traveling as a family so our kids can get that exposure.

  15. Mustard Seed Money says :

    My son is only one so we have a couple of years before we have to think about sports. Having played at an elite level I’m not sure I want my son to spend that much time playing sports.

    I missed out on so much as a kid due to sports that I hope to encourage other activities like music, art and especially travel. My wife was able to experience these things and feel like she is a more cultured individual.

    • Kalie says :

      It’s definitely on our minds more now as our son just turned 5, and some of his friends have started in sports. Thanks for sharing your experience and what you took away from it. I’m glad you have some ideas in mind for giving your son a more well-rounded experience.

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