Who is Getting the Blame for Toxic Sports Culture?

I recently read an article on the way back from the S.P.O.R.T.S. Conference in Savannah, Ga. that spoke about the trials and tribulations of youth sports and the culture that surrounds it.

Much like any other person on a nine-hour drive home, I entered a rabbit hole.

Suddenly, I found myself trying to connect all the dots like a sporty version of Sherlock Holmes and an older version of my personal favorite detective, Nancy Drew. The Aspen Project Play, an amazing online resource states, “the most recent year in which data is available is 2019. That year, 56.1% of youth ages 6-17 say they participated on a sports team or took sports lessons afterschool or on weekends.”

In response to that number, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services also set a long-term objective: 63.3% of youth playing a sport by 2030.

However, we know what came next.

Several organizations have stepped in to educate parents, peers, and organizers on how we can come back from low numbers. 

The Aspen Project also states that nearly 30 percent of the 56 percent of youth lost interest in playing a sport during 2020. While data is not readily available just yet, we can assume that number is accurate. Even though our industry never “tanked” and has been moving forward and growing in numbers again in 2021 and 2022, it has still taken somewhat of a hit. As I mentioned earlier, this is where I started to piece things together.

As many others did before and after me, I had a sport I loved as a child and had peers that did as well. However, once my parents realized I detested playing and would rather focus on ballet instead, they let me quit. Others in those same shoes had the opposite experience.

For softball players, volleyball became a fall conditioning sport. For football players, track became a necessity. What was once done out of love was now done with the purpose of gaining additional training. This often led to muscle overuse, burnout, and a general disdain for athletics. However, what kept these athletes going?

Was it parents? Peers? Love of the game?

While we truly may never know the answer—and there may be often more than one—it is important to realize that burnout is possible and could often be a culprit.

In addition to burnout, parents may also be the blame. As I am not a parent, I do not feel comfortable judging parenting decisions. But what I do feel comfortable with is saying this statement; stop making your children play every single weekend from the time they are seven until the time they leave the house.

Not only is that going to cause an injury, but it is also going to cause the child to feel an endless amount of pressure in the long haul. Examples being:

-My parents pay too much to have me quit

-My siblings have sacrificed weekends for me constantly

-My parents push me to be the best and to win

These are just a few examples of thoughts that may go through a child’s brain when routinely playing. What once started out as fun for the child suddenly became all about winning.

Toxic sports culture is a thing and should not be taken lightly. When we are trying to get our children to sign up because it is fun then get mad when said child loses—losing is inevitable in sports—a switch flips. After all, aren’t sports supposed to teach people one of the most valuable lessons in life? You win some you lose some?