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Youth Sports is a Killer

Politics, competitiveness, machinations in youth sports—and that's just the parents! Our 'Patch In' columnist asks: Is that true in Wilton?

Rivals competing in a match-up for the season ending big game. Coaches making headlines because of off-the-field behavior. Leagues competing for players with commissioners needing to get involved.

Think this is about Major League sports? Think again—it’s what’s happening our towns’ youth leagues every day.

If I had a dollar for every time someone approached me and said, “You should write an article about sports in town and how awful it is!” I’d be a wealthy woman and wouldn’t have to write opinion columns anymore.

Yes, I have children who play in my town’s athletic leagues. And trust me, I do give thought to how writing about sports will impact how my kids are viewed when it comes time for tryouts. I had to think long and hard about how to approach this one.

I wasn’t a competitive athlete growing up, at least not when it came to team sports. While I did have to try out for cheerleading to make the squad (ack! can’t believe I’m admitting that one in public), back then it was a ‘club’ rather than something viewed as being athletic, and we certainly weren’t gymnasts or dancers. So I’ve had a sharp learning curve to navigate the world of youth sports.

My husband competed in swimming, and he grew up overseas, so I have a hard time believing his experience was similar to what it’s like being a competitive athlete in communities like ours, where the emphasis is so much on sports as the be-all-end-all kind of thing for our kids to do.

Regardless, viewing the phenomenon of organized team play as a parent brings being part of it to a whole new level. The politics, competitiveness and machinations are larger than life for something that should be, in its purest form, something our children simply enjoy. Linguistically, at least, sports are play. But it’s a whole different story when it comes to what sports really are in everyday practice.

In , where I live, there’s been a recent controversy that broke out when parents of younger field hockey players formed a separate booster organization to promote and focus on players not yet in high school. When the news broke that the Wilton Youth Field Hockey group had splintered off from the Wilton Field Hockey Association and there was a split in the parent leadership ranks, the proverbial stuff hit the fan. The finger-pointing and accusations ensued, including letters-to-the-editor and, I’m sure relationships that are now casualties at both the adult and kid levels.

Wilton’s not alone. In the last year we’ve seen stories like the lawsuit over discrimination and safety in lacrosse; coaches who had their youth football teams burn their trophies to teach them not to be satisfied with a third-place finish; a team disqualified for keeping ineligible players on the roster; a coach hitting an umpire; and the list could go on.

I’ve had people suggest I write stories about coaches who use abusive or inappropriate language with kids, or who pit them against their friends, all in the name of the win. Others have recommended I write something about the cliquey nature of sports parents, like the moms of your kids’ teammates who ignore you when you walk onto the sideline. Most parents have experienced the disappointment of a tryout that resulted in a child being the only one excluded from the team, so that could have made a potential story too.

But almost to a person, no one was willing to use their name to talk about it in print. The mark is too long-lasting.

What pushes parents to get over-involved in the sports leagues in which their children compete? What happens when some parents try to re-live their own gloried years on the gridiron or in other arena, and inflict the Freudian fingerprints of unfulfilled fantasies on their own kids? What happens to the children who can’t take the pressure, pain and disappointment?

Anytime I’ve been in a discussion with someone about sports in town, it inevitably leads to someone saying, “Sports in this town, it’s just unbelievable!” It’s usually followed by someone else countering, “Yeah, but it’s like that in every town.”

I’d love to hear your horror stories, frustrations or thoughts on the subject. I know we all fear the repercussions of retribution, so this will be the one time I’ll look the other way about anonymous comments. I’m curious if that is what it’s like in every town. Will you have the courage to play thisgame with me in print?

wiltonwoman January 26, 2012 at 02:34 PM
Great comments. We have not had to navigate the Wilton sports fracas because our son is not an athlete. We couldn't believe it, as both my husband and I are/were jocks. He tried every sport imaginable (couldn't get him to the Fencing school though), and he loved the team aspect of them but just wanted to have fun. It was clear from the time he was about six that the fun part was pretty much over. The fun part was winning--that was the message. He had some GREAT coaches who worked with him and gave him playing time even though he wasn't the best on the teams, but as he got older it was obvious that if he wasn't going to be a star, he wasn't going to play much. I have heard stories from people all over FF County about the back-stabbing, manipulating, outright childish behavior from parents and coaches on pretty much every sports front, and the stresses that the kids face working with tough coaches, their parents pushing them to practice more, make better plays, and the politics that they need to play. But, let's be honest--is this very different from the way the world is operating now? The message here is bigger than sports. The message is about the way we are teaching our kids to succeed in the world. "The end justifies the means". WIN. "Nothing is as important as your success." You take the top1% of the earners in the country and stick them in 25 counties in the US, give them kids and just watch the fireworks as they try to make their kids have a better life than they did.
Joe Burke January 26, 2012 at 03:47 PM
"inflict the Freudian fingerprints of unfulfilled fantasies" !!! HBH jumps the shark!!! As the father of 4 school aged children who play sports with varying degrees of competitiveness and a coach, I find many of these comments narrowly focused on a very small negative part of sports while ignoring the larger positive reality that our sports programs offer.The unfortunate reality is that sports like everything else have become specialized and require very specific skills in order to become successful. When I was a kid it was not unusual for high school kids to play 3 varsity sports-today in large part because of specialization and competition that is reserved for truly gifted athletes. This specialization and focus starts early for parents and children who want that. There is no doubt that there are some parents and coaches who are a detriment to youth sports but they are the exception. My experience is that the overwhelming majority of the parents who volunteer to coach and serve on the various boards work hard to provide a very positive experience for our children. There are many rec programs which offer opportunities for kids who do not want the more competitive travel experience. The kids have a blast and the focus is on development and sportsmanship. Come watch my 3rd+4th grade girls basketball game on Saturday at 8:30- you'll see
Raj January 27, 2012 at 09:07 PM
I agree with Joe. We've had some really great experiences watching (and occasionally coaching) our kids playing sports here in Wilton. In fact our youngest daughter is having a blast with Joe's daughter Ryan as her coach (is this weekend the father-daughter Burke coaching showdown?) Our middle daughter is also learning and loving basketball with Dom and Laurie Musilli as their coaches and our oldest daughter loves her gymnastics practices with Coach Chad. My wife and I have even had our fun tailgating with the other parents before an away travel soccer game. We've deliberately avoided letting any of our kids specialize in any one sport, but agree its much more common these days than when we were young because of the lure of scholarships. And while we occasionally see someone get a little amped up on the sidelines, I really think it’s more the exception and not the rule.
Amo Probus January 27, 2012 at 09:43 PM
I don't know why we waste money on books, classrooms, music, art and all those other frills. Let's focus only on sports and develop our kids to become master ballplayers able to sign a pro contract and pay for my lavish retirement.
Joe Burke January 27, 2012 at 10:12 PM
Thanks Raj- the showdown was a couple of weeks ago and I was out coached!

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