What’s wrong with youth sports today?
Probably a lot of things. But I can only speak to my personal experience. I was a competitive swimmer from the age of 9 to 17.
Swimming is a whole different ball game. Mainly because it isn’t a ballgame.
Swimming is an individual sport that sometimes pretends to be a team sport. Swimming is absolute hell. If you’re thinking about joining the military, try being a competitive swimmer first. There’s a much lower risk of death, but you’ll spend most of your day following orders, adhering to a strict regimen, and having no semblance of a social life. If you think swimming is an easy sport, meet me at the nearest olympic-size pool and bring your inhaler. Even if you don’t have an inhaler, you’ll need one.
If you like waking up before 5:00am and starting your day with a freezing cold shower, this may be the perfect sport for you!
I loved swimming as a kid. I loved taking swim lessons. I picked it up quickly and I was so much better than the other kids. I loved playing in my grandpa’s pool and I loved swimming in lakes. I loved swimming in the tiny kiddie pool in my backyard. Yes, the one with the slide.
By the time I retired from swimming at the ripe old age of 17, I loathed it.
The first problem with youth sports is that kids are being pressured at such a young age to pick just one to focus on. I swam and played soccer until high school. Then I decided to pursue swimming exclusively since I didn’t have time to do both. Why didn’t I have time? Because swimming took up too much of it. It was too demanding. If I wanted to be a great swimmer, I needed to dedicate all my time to it.
Or so the coaches said.
I loved my coaches. They were all great people and I really do believe they all meant well. It’s probably one of those trickle-down effect things. They had a coach who told them this is how it is, so then they became a coach and told us this is how it is.
I don’t blame them for their occasional Hitler-esque behavior. I blame the culture.
Everyone wants to hear that they have a shot at something. That it’s not too late for them to be great, to be the best. But let’s face it, some people are born with natural talent and all the right circumstances. The rest of us are born with the world’s greatest work ethic, and some of us work hard enough to measure up to the talent.
A side note: I am from the “everyone gets a trophy” generation and I have something I’d like to say about that. We didn’t even want the trophies. That was all on the parents, who just wanted to raise their kids without them ever having to feel left out or not good enough or disappointed in themselves. More on that in another post later.
But that’s what this all comes down to, right, is this lie that everyone gets a trophy just for participating. I really and truly believed that if I worked hard enough, I would be a fast enough swimmer to get a college scholarship. I’m not even talking about unrealistic dreams of getting to Olympic Trials. I just wanted a scholarship. Not even a full-ride, just a scholarship, just something to help me pay for college.
If my coaches had been honest with themselves and honest with me, I could have focused less on swimming (not quit, just spent less time and energy on it) and focused more on academics. As it was, I was killing myself trying to do both. But we keep telling ourselves this lie that if we work hard enough, the big break is coming. When in reality, the big break might have been something else entirely had we actually listened to the universe.
Swimming taught me a million lessons that I hold near and dear to my heart, so I don’t believe that I wasted any time. I don’t have regrets. In fact, I count my lucky stars that I was too busy and exhausted to really deal with high school drama. You know those people who wish they could go back to high school? Who are those people and what high school did they go to?! Not mine.
Swimming taught me dedication.
I can’t think of anything more dedicated than getting up at 4:50am every day just to do something you’re mediocre at (other than what most of us do at our own jobs on a daily basis). I was 100% dedicated to the sport. I did everything right: the workouts, the stretches, the diet (all the carbs you can eat, baby). I suffered through the hard times. I went to swim meets when I had sinus infections. I went to swim meets when I had ear infections.
I kept swimming when I found out that I had exercise-induced asthma and the chlorine and all the other chemicals were literally killing my lungs. I got an inhaler that didn’t help, and I kept swimming. I kept swimming even when it seemed like it was so much easier for everyone else on the team. I kept swimming even when the younger kids gradually got better and faster than me.
And that dedication never really leaves you. I recently did the Whole30 with my husband and he struggled through the entire thing, complaining all the way. I laughed and told him we should do a Whole365. After he said hell to the no, he said I believe you would do that just to prove you could.
He’s 100% right. I can commit to just about anything and see it through to the end, and I owe it all to swimming.
Swimming also taught me when to quit.
It’s really difficult to quit on anything when you’ve grown up with the quitting is not an option mentality. Now, my parents would never make me do anything I really didn’t want to do. But if the time came for piano lessons and I wasn’t feeling it that day, you bet they’d make me go.
I can hear my mom saying, you can go to piano crying or you can go to piano smiling, but you’re going either way.
That exact scenario might not have even happened, but it’s hilarious to think about.
But there does come a time when you have to quit on things, or rather, let them go. It’s a fine line. You can’t keep working at a job you hate, but you can’t quit your job every time some little thing upsets you. That’s where the dedication comes in.
You do have to be able to quit, leave things behind, without feeling guilty or thinking you’re a quitter. I was in my senior year of high school and I was ready to leave a lot of things behind. I was burnt out, depressed, anemic (which wasn’t helping the depression), and felt like a shell of the person I used to be. Or I just didn’t have the energy to be the person I used to be.
Swimming and I had a good run. I got some ribbons, some medals, some recognition. I threw up at practice a dozen times. And I don’t know if it was one specific day or a multitude of days, but at some point that year I decided I would not continue swimming. I would finish up high school swim season and short course season and I would be done. I think I fought an internal battle with myself about this for years, but when it was all said and done all I felt was relief.
But, swimming also taught me to stay active.
So of course I decided to learn how to play hockey after that. I couldn’t handle all of the free time. I had to find something else to keep me busy. I also started teaching fitness classes at my gym. I joined a hockey team. And honestly, I was not very good, but most of us weren’t. It wasn’t about being the best, it was about having a good time and learning how to be better and challenging myself.
I have no regrets. I’m glad that I pushed through and kept swimming until I finished high school. It was a nice, clean break. But I think we have to start looking at youth sports in a different light.
Let your kids play the sports they enjoy. Of course there will be days when they hate soccer practice and they’ll have to tough it out, but recognize that there is a difference between not wanting to go to one soccer practice and never wanting to play soccer ever again.
Help them understand that there’s more to play for besides the trophy everyone gets. They are learning valuable skills that will help them later in life, and there’s also something to be said for practicing and improving your own skills, even if you’re not going to make it to the level you’d like to be at.
Walk away from things when it’s time to walk away. This could be a sport, it could be a job, it could be a person. Listen to what’s going on internally and allow yourself to quit if that’s what will make you happy.
And don’t let your kids be swimmers unless you want to wake up at 5am to take them to practice, wash their chlorine-covered towels, and buy 4 times as many groceries because we really do eat like Michael Phelps.
What’s wrong with youth sports today?
All the adult involvement. The competition. The seriousness. Not every kid is going to be the best. Your kid might not be the best.
Let’s give youth sports back to the kids.
And just let them have fun.