Take it from Larry Stone, who has learned a few lessons over 27 years of youth sports parenting: There are a few tricky or annoying aspects of your offspring's sports participation, but mostly, you're going to want to savor it before it goes by in an instant.
It was way back in 1991 when my oldest daughter, Jessica, signed up for a 6-and-under Bobby Sox softball team in Oakland, Calif., where we were living at the time.
It was a delightful season of fun, growth and bonding, though it soon became apparent that Jess was not destined to be a slugger like Dave Henderson of her beloved A’s. To be fair, she did hit a grand slam (of the Little League variety) in her final at-bat, as Jessica, now 32 and married, reminded me on Tuesday.
I didn’t realize at the time that our family was stepping timidly into a world that would at times dominate our lives, and certainly became a focal point of family logistics for more than a quarter century.
Indeed, for the next 27 years, uninterrupted, organized youth sports has been a staple of the Stone household, a seemingly never-ending cycle of tryouts, practices, clinics, camps and games.
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You name it, and one of our three kids played it at one time or another – football, baseball, softball, basketball, soccer, tennis, swimming, diving, water polo, and maybe a couple of others I’ve forgotten. The girls eventually settled into the life aquatic. Jessica swam through high school at the club level, while Meredith, now 21, was involved in diving and water polo (and still plays the latter recreationally in college). Our son, Jordan, migrated to baseball (shocker, huh?).
I bring this up because last week, when Jordan’s American Legion team was eliminated in the state-title game in Centralia, he aged out of Legion baseball, having turned 19 during the summer. For all intents and purposes, our association with youth sports, at least from a parental level, officially ended.
That realization was kind of emotional, I’ll admit. We’ve already been dealing with the empty-nest syndrome. Now I guess it’s time to ponder the empty-bleacher life.
Naturally, I’ve been reflecting about the good times and the bad as a youth-sports parent (and fortunately, we had far more of the former). I thought I’d present some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years – some of them the hard way.
- A few of the coaches you’ll encounter will be ego-driven tyrants who think they’re the next Belichick or Auriemma as they micro-manage pre-teens. Far more will be kind, supportive and motivated by the simple desire to make your child a better player without bruising his or her psyche in the process.
- Throw the words “select,” “premier” or “elite” in front of a sports program, and there’s no end to the amount of effort (and money) we parents will put forth to get our kid into it.
- There’s a dire need to make youth athletics less about select, premier and elite, and more about fun, participation and recreation.
- If your overriding goal for youth sports is a Division I scholarship, you need to rethink your priorities. First of all, it’s probably not going to happen – that’s just the stark reality. Second of all, you’re likely to spend so much money in that pursuit that it negates the value of what in most cases would be a partial scholarship anyway. And third of all, if your kid has the talent, it will emerge clearly and emphatically on its own.
In other words, pay for the camps, clinics, showcases and recruiting videos if you’d like, but be aware that the payoff is not likely to be what you think.
- Burnout is the scourge of youth sports, and specialization is the single biggest source of burnout. Particularly at the younger levels, diversify, don’t specialize!
- Overwrought and demanding parents are now, were then, and will continue to be the bane of youth sports, perpetually pushing the line between concerned involvement and crazed entitlement.
- Some of the best friends and people I’ve ever met are youth-sports parents who set the finest examples of how to positively support, encourage and nurture your child’s athletic career. And some of the best parenting advice, perspective and support I ever got came from people I sat with in the bleachers — the ones with older kids who had been here and done this, and the ones struggling through the same developmental hiccups that were keeping me up at night.
- The best players at ages 8, 9 and 10 will rarely be the best at 16, 17 and 18. Puberty is the greatest equalizer known to man (and woman).
- The advancement in opportunities for girls in sports, and the vast improvement in their skill level across the board, is one of the heartwarming developments of the past 25 years.
- The greatest psychological trauma that exists is waiting for a callback after your kid has tried out for a particular team.
- Upon further review, I’m going to amend that – the greatest psychological trauma that exists is waiting to see if your kid made the All-Star team, for which his or her future happiness and self-esteem solely rests on a positive answer (at least that’s how we all saw it at the time; turns out, he or she will get through it).
- The happiest day in a sports parent’s life is when your child gets a driver’s license and is able to drive to practice. It’s all downhill from there. Freedom’s just another word for no one left to haul.
- If the umpire/referee/official is a parent volunteer or a boy/girl under the age of 18, then any second-guessing, whining or heckling from the crowd shall be punishable by a public lashing. And in all cases, treat the ump/ref/official with civility. Your kids are watching and listening.
One of my favorite memories occurred in a girls’ 12-and-under softball game when one of the parents, umping behind home plate, pulled off his mask and gear in the middle of an inning, announced that he wasn’t going to take the abuse anymore, and marched off the field.
- That expensive piece of cutting-edge equipment your kid desperately wants? Save the money. You probably don’t need it.
- A corollary – if there’s a choice between a $150 bat and a $300 bat, buy the $150 bat. Just trust me on this one.
- That said, we need to make youth sports, particularly at the travel-ball level, more affordable. It shouldn’t be the exclusive province of well-off families.
- In the end, lo and behold, it’s not really about sports at all. What matters most for youngsters is learning about themselves, and learning how to get along. For the vast majority of kids, the games themselves will fade over the years. What will remain are the friendships and life lessons from the 21st-century village that sports can provide and that kids so desperately need outside of the structure of the classroom.
- Savor the memories – it goes by in a blur. And I loved (almost) every minute of it.