Updated: Feb 6
About seven years ago my family started the slow, expensive, time-consuming descent into the youth sports abyss. My oldest son, now a high school student, had started playing lacrosse as a second grader and by fourth grade he had become skilled enough that every summer he would earn a spot on a travel team. In the United States, more than 71 percent of children play some sort of organized sport, according to the Aspen Institute. Our summers were filled with long practices three to four times per week, tournaments twice monthly, lots of less than stellar hotel breakfasts, and tournaments all over the state. I even coached one of his teams at a regional tournament, so, we were all in.
A few years later, my daughter followed her big brother into competitive sports. As she advanced to higher levels in gymnastics, the regimens became stricter and the time commitment grew. During the summer, she would do conditioning every weekday for four to five hours per day and she had several gymnastics tournaments throughout the state. Did I mention she was in fourth grade? Then the expectations from the teams broadened to include out of state travel.
My wife and I viewed sports as a way for our four kids to have fun, get exercise and socialize with their friends. The cost, based on the return, was a no-brainer. We happily spent summers driving our kids all over the map to participate in sports because that’s what made them happy. Our two oldest traveled with their teams and our two youngest attended sports camps and we believed they would likely follow in their older siblings’ footsteps. We did this not because we envisioned them as professional athletes and not because we expected them to earn athletic collegiate scholarships; we endured these sports-packed summers because we thought that’s what they wanted and we built family vacations and our lives around the kids’ sports and travel team schedules. Somewhere along the way, athletics overran our life.
As is the case every year, when the New Year started, sports teams began to reach out to us about our summer plans. I asked my fifth grader if he wanted to try out for a travel team and he responded with an excited “Yes!” That meant that three of our four kids would now be running the gauntlet of youth sports summer teams. After my 11-year-old son jumped at the offer to play on his first summer team, I realized what we had become. Family dinners did not exist in our home. My wife and I headed in multiple directions throughout the week to take the kids to practices and games. The sports regimens had taken over our lives and the relationships and experiences we wanted for our kids seemed about as artificial as the turf they sometimes played on. Teammates rarely spent time together away from the field, a dynamic familiar to the many weary families raising kids in an overly scheduled, compartmentalized culture where everything is planned and organized.
Sensing a need for change, I called a family meeting and I asked the kids again about their desire to play sports in the summer, but this time I rephrased the question. If they had a choice, I asked, would they want to play sports or have a summer filled with different activities. We could take short trips and explore the state: visit Big Bend, Palo Duro, go tubing in San Marcos, catch some foamy waves in Padre Island, go boating on Lake Travis, swim in the pool, visit caverns, and actually get to know Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and other Texas cities from beyond a hotel lobby or city sports park. If we wanted to leave the state, we could go to the Rocky Mountains,the Grand Canyon, the Florida Keys, venture internationally. Most of all, we would have no schedule, no plans, no structure, only a guarantee that we would do something fun, and we could pick days where we did absolutely nothing.
“Yes!” they shouted in almost perfect unison before I could even finish the sentence.
What I discovered is that while my kids enjoyed their summer sports teams, they were ready for a change. Even my high schooler who started the summer sports trend in our family said that it would be nice to take a break. Does this mean that my kids are transitioning and will become part of the 70 percent of kids who according to the National Alliance for Sports quit sports by age 13? I doubt it, but it does show that maybe as parents we should make room for other summer options.
As we go headlong into summer, I ponder the soundness of my proposal since I will have four kids at home with nothing to do; a summer with no sports, a summer free of practices, regimens, physical conditioning and schedule demands. The only thing I know for sure is that on the horizon is the promise of a summer as I knew it 45 years ago; hot, free and endless.
I’ve no idea if I will survive our little family experiment and my wife says she admires my bravery for lunging into the unknown of an unstructured summer. Kids get bored quickly these days, it seems, but maybe that’s part of the problem. Maybe we have conditioned our kids to be overly stimulated and trained them to think that they cannot be alone with their thoughts or that their time must be filled with activities, devices, play dates, sports and other activities. My hope is that they will reflect on their summers and remember in the keepsake boxes of their minds the sand castles we built, the fireworks we watched, the lightning bugs we caught, and how drippy Popsicle juice on an arm can attract curious honeybees.
Heading into summer I again feel the excitement I had in my youth as summer neared. Once again the familiar restlessness visits me and I think about what is to come, what new things will be discovered. We’ve strayed from center it seems.
I do not know what to expect or whether any of this will even work, but this summer, to paraphrase Robert Frost, we are taking the summer less traveled, and that, I hope, makes all the difference.
THIS ESSAY WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED JUNE 2018 AT: https://www.fatherly.com/play/summer-without-youth-sports/