Regan McMahon: As the mother of two athletic kids myself, I started noticing how much time we were spending in the car, going from practice to games, and how much our kids’ involvement in sports was cutting everything else out on the weekends. Before they were involved in sports, we were always a family that loved to do things on the weekends. We would go for aimless drives in West Marin, go to the beach, or pile into the car and head out with no particular destination and have some sort of fantastic adventure that day. Suddenly, with every weekend committed to sports games, it was very hard to find time for other things.
And I was in a family with a husband who does more than fifty percent of the chauffeuring. Even with the two of us sharing the load, it was very hard. I knew that other people were having an even harder time, especially people on the elite club teams who had to live the tournament life. They were giving up not only Saturdays, but whole weekends zigzagging across the state.
I knew that it was harder for divorced people, single moms, single dads, and people with three kids instead of two kids. I knew that however hard it was for us, it was even harder for other people. I started to think about why childhood is so different now than when I was growing up. How did we get here? Does it have to be this way or is there room for change? I went to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine and said, “All these people are living this life and no one is talking about it. How about if I talk about it?”
SW: So, what have you seen as some of the biggest changes in youth sports since you were growing up?
RM: I wrote the original article and looked into the history of youth sports to see what changed and what became different. The two big factors were Title IX and the rise of girls’ sports, and the rise of soccer. It used to be that kids weren’t serious about team sports until middle school or even high school, but once the soccer boom hit in the `80s, suddenly every kid was signed up for soccer in kindergarten. You need different skill levels for baseball or football, but soccer you can start when all you have to do is run around and kick a ball. It’s perfect for little kids. They don’t have to have any particular skill set. They don’t have to have any particular body type, the way you do for basketball or football.
Basically, my feeling was, we’re in this system and everybody thinks sports are great for kids. It’s all positive and you learn values like focus and discipline, and striving for a goal, and learning how to work as a team, and learning how to be a good loser and a gracious winner. All those are positives. But at the level at which participation is now, there are some downsides. And one of the big downsides is the risk of overuse injuries. The tendency is to start young, specialize early, and play one sport all year round, which in fact, is really bad for your body. I looked into what the American Academy of Pediatrics had to say about that. And they, of course, say that you shouldn’t specialize until adolescence. I thought it was worthy to insert into the discussion the need for balance. It’s better for your body to play multiple sports than just one sport, better for your body to take breaks between seasons.
The other big thing that changed from when I was growing up is that before, within the nine-month school year, you played three different sports for three different seasons. They were discrete seasons. There were breaks in between. Now the seasons overlap and most people are electing early to play just one sport. And it’s actually worse for your body. Obviously, people are always trying to do what’s best for their kids and support them and do things out of love. So I felt like pointing out some of those things, so that when parents make decisions for their kids, they don’t lose sight of some of these harmful aspects.
SW: Out of all the advice you give parents in your book, what are the most important pieces? What’s the best way for parents to start this revolution?
RM: A key thing to remember is that balance is important. Parenting is a very trendy business and so everybody goes in one direction for a while, and sometimes new information comes and people kind of backtrack. One of the things that’s changed from when I was growing up is that one ideal parents were striving for was to have a well-rounded child. That was valued as a very good thing. Now what’s valued is being special, and being special at one thing. Achievement is valued over being well-rounded or being balanced. I think it’s important for parents to remember that having balance in your life, and your family’s life, and your kid’s individual life is a good thing. It’s a positive, supportive thing for their state of emotional well-being and their ability to perform well. Athletes who take breaks perform better than athletes who never take a break.
Another thing in America is that we value doing and achieving so much that there’s very little value placed on doing nothing, when in fact there is value in downtime. Out of downtime come things like creativity. You have to be bored to think, “Well, what can I do right now to make myself happy?” and then a creative moment happens. “Well, I think I’ll paint a picture,” or “I think I’ll practice my guitar.” Those moments come out of boredom and downtime, and if your kid never has time and is just rushing from performance to performance, essentially they’re missing that component of child development.
Also, balance is a good thing for the whole family. If every single square on the calendar is filled in by the time you turn over a new month, which is what happened to me, that’s not a great thing for the family. If you never have dinner together, that’s not good for the family either. It shocks me that Americans have thrown [the family dinner] out, as if it’s not important, an extremely basic bonding ritual that humans have been doing since we lived in the caves. And suddenly, in the last five or ten years, Americans have made this decision that it’s not important. I think it’s really nuts to have accepted that, that wolfing down a Power Bar between school and practice is fine or that fast food on the way to and from a tournament is the equivalent of a family dinner. There are so many good things that can happen at the dinner table beyond just your physical nourishment.
Make sure that your week — your life — has moments of downtime in it, moments of together time that aren’t sports-related or activity-related. You have to program that in, just like some couples will have every Thursday as a date night.
SW: Anything else that can parents do?
RM: Parents should be brave enough to keep their own kid’s well-being in mind and not give into the peer pressure of the other parents on the team. Even on the most competitive teams, they still have team meetings and parents get a vote on, “Well, we didn’t have this tournament on the schedule, and now we’ve been invited to this, and so should we go or should we not go?” Sometimes these things are brought up to a vote and a lot of times parents may be feeling, “Hey, this is the one weekend a year when we didn’t have a tournament. I don’t want that. My kid’s already stressed out. We signed up for four tournaments this season and that’s all we can handle.” I would encourage parents to stand up and say, “That’s all we can handle and we’re going to vote ‘no.'” It can be hard on that parent who’s speaking up, but on the other hand, sometimes it can give other parents the freedom to say ‘no’, too.
What I keep hearing from coaches is that the hardcore parents are usually in the minority. They tend to be really active and have the loudest voice. They also tend to be the people who lead the leagues. So why don’t the normal people, the sane ones, step up into these leadership positions? That way the viewpoint of balance could have a voice at the table. If you have democracy in any sense, exercise your right to vote. Sports are great but they’re just one thing. A lot of other things are good for your kids, too.
Check yourself as to your motivation as to why you are involved in the level you are involved at. If you are signing up your kid in something when they are seven or eight because you believe that this decision will mean that they will get a college scholarship 10 years down the line, statistically, it’s not a realistic assumption. Of all the people who play youth sports, fewer than one percent ever get a college scholarship. And most don’t even play in high school. Most kids give up team sports by the time they’re 13.
Parents should ask themselves, “What is my goal in having my kids being involved in sports?” Is it so they can have good healthy exercise, fun with their friends, develop some skills, have a positive activity to do for part of their week, stay in shape? If so, that’s great. But if you really believe that they’ve got to get this training because they’re destined for the pros or for a college scholarship, be realistic about whether that’s true or not. College coaches, professional athletes, and athletic trainers whom I interviewed agree that the people who are the exceptional athletes who can go that far are the people who are naturally gifted and have exceptional talent. But today’s parents think, “If I just get my kid the right training and stay on him to practice, then he’s going to go all the way.” They’re forgetting the factor that cream rises to the top. They believe that as long as I get him or her in the right situation and pay the big fees to be on the hot team, then they’re going to get this goal.
SW: What would you say to parents who worry that their children will feel left out if they choose not to enroll their kids in sports, either early on or at all?
RM: We did that. My children started sports in about second grade. The extra years that we got of not doing organized sports every Saturday were this great bonus. They got to hang out and be kids longer. What’s true is you can feel left out socially because the soccer thing is so dominant, especially in the early years. But what I learned in my research is that there’s no evidence that starting early in a sport makes you a better athlete in that sport, so you can wait.
SW: How do we go about bringing back unstructured activities like playing tag in the neighborhood and games in the local park? Do you think it’s possible?
RM: I think it is. People have gotten unrealistic about how impossible it is. There’s the fear thing and this idea that you can’t let your kids play outside in your front yard, or your back yard, because there’s going to be a drive-by shooting or something. Even people in gated communities don’t let their kids play in the front yard, so you know there’s something deeper in the culture that’s preventing those parents from letting their kids out.
I think parents have to be creative and they have to loosen up. There are so many things that kids are losing developmentally by not having unstructured play, things like conflict resolution. When you invent a game with your neighbors or you go to a park and play a pickup game, that rule making and defining things is part of your emotional development. If you never play a game that isn’t adjudicated by grownups wearing stripes, then how are you going to learn that skill?
Think of how much kids have always learned from things like playing blocks. Parents are too quick to surrender to, “Oh, well now everyone plays video games, so that’s the way it is.” No, get down on the floor and play blocks with your kids! The thing that parents don’t have right now, for some reason, is time. They’ve given up so much of their lives for work. Even if they sign up for 40 hours, then they work 80 hours, and when they’re home they’re checking their Blackberry every two seconds, and being on email, and preparing for the meeting on Monday by working all day Sunday. They’re giving so much time to their jobs that they’ve surrendered however the kid is supposed to be learning and growing to coaches and the video game console. As long as their kid’s plugged into something then they say, “Okay, that’s fine. I can go back to my Blackberry.” What parents need to get back to is: What your kids need is you. They need time to be developing emotionally in a casual setting with friends and family that isn’t towards a goal or a trophy.
SW: You were a serious figure skater from age 8 to 16. Do you think you missed out on anything by spending so much time at the rink?
RM: Yes, I definitely missed out on things for years and years and years, but it was a choice. I was the unusual person in my class. The other kids were going to birthday parties and I wasn’t. “Star Trek” was on Friday nights and I skated on Friday nights, so I never saw “Star Trek” until it was in reruns. I was totally culturally out of it. It was understood that I was making this unusual choice because I was compelled by this sport. That’s why it looks so odd to me to see an entire classroom of 32 kids all sort of living the life that I lived. It was a really special unusual choice then, and now it’s this normalized thing that everyone has to have sports dominating their life, whether they’re good athletes or not.
SW: After first hearing of your book, some might think you are anti-sports, but you are careful to explain that you really love sports. Can you explain this a bit more?
RM: I’m pro sports! Since I was a child athlete and I know what it’s like to strive hard for a goal, I don’t want people to quit sports. I just want people to not give up the notion of having some balance in the life of the family and the life of the kid.
SW: How was the balance for you when you were writing the book . . . raising your kids, running your household, and working as the deputy book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle four days a week?
RM: I’m paid to be an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. Any freelance writing that I do is done nights and weekends. I’m a fast writer and a very linear thinker so I don’t look at a blank page and think, “Hmmm . . .where should I go with this?” I kind of bang it out.
I’ve never had any kind of privacy in my writing, so the idea of somebody going to their writing cottage or something is beyond me, because where I wrote my book is in the middle of our guest room. It’s in between my husband’s home office, the hallway, and the kitchen. When I got the book deal, I didn’t even have a desk at home. The first thing I did was get a desk. While I was writing my book, my daughter and my teenage son were always traipsing through. It’s like writing a book in the middle of a busy train station.
I would come home from work at 6, immediately go straight from the front door to the kitchen and start cooking. At 7 o’clock I’d be at my computer and be there writing until usually about 11. I don’t have the luxury of being a procrastinator or having writer’s block. I just had to think, “I’ve only got three hours a day and I have a deadline at the other end and I just have to do it.”
SW: Do you have any last words of advice for parents?
RM: Kids are under so much pressure and we should do anything we can do as parents to have their home be a refuge from the pressures of the world, rather than a place where they’re constantly reminded, “You have to succeed. You have to perform. You have to get great grades. You have to be a winner.” Kids used to be able to be kids. These kids are under constant pressure to succeed in every area of their lives, and that’s a lot of a burden to carry around on your shoulders when you’re that young.