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.
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 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.
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.
Here are a few parent-approved tactics for reclaiming your time and money from sports.
- Set limits ahead of time. One extracurricular per season per kid is a good starting point.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- Stay local. Stick with local, not traveling teams, if you’re trying to limit the cost and time associated with sports.
- 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!