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Are Profits Killing Youth Sports?

“I think youth sports have gotten away from what’s in the best interest of kids development. You get into, you know hey if I open up an indoor sports center, how much money can I make? So the more leagues I run, the more tournaments I run, the more programs I run, I’m going to make more money,” says former tennis professional and current coach Meredith Walton


Many parents are spending a lot of hours and a lot of money, to give their kids the best shot at doing well, in sports.

But some athletes think things are getting out of hand, that kids are being pushed too hard and given false hopes about their chances to make it big. One of those athletes, who made it very big lives right here in Houston.

Carl Lewis is often considered one of the greatest Olympic athletes of the twentieth century. Now, as a track coach at the University of Houston he says there's no comparing when he was growing up, to youth sports today.

"Sports has gone from something that was important for kids to have; PE was important, health, and diet, and nutrition, participating, those were all important things. And it's gone from that to pay to play,” Lewis says.

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Lewis worries that some sports, like baseball, have simply become too expensive to play for some kids.

Jenea Bender would probably agree. As a full-time teacher and driver who shuttles to practices and games a middle school aged son and daughter, she says her family is busy with youth sports typically five to six days a week. But time is not the only cost. "Her stuff itself is around $300.00 a month. My son's baseball, probably $200.00 a month,” Bender says as she describes the financial commitment the family makes for their children. Bender says that monthly cost for baseball practices and games doesn't include the $1,000-plus they've spent on equipment, or the thousands it can cost for a child to compete in an out-of-town tournament, or camp.

And tournaments and camps have become a big business. So big in fact, that the majority of these elite camps and club teams have become the gateway to future participation and success.

"You don’t use your high school sport anymore, if you’re that good to get recruited to college except for football, everything's club. Why is there so many clubs? Well, it's a business, you can make money,” says Meredith Walton. She played tennis in college and professionally, before coaching on the college level and now locally. She thinks profits are altering goals.

"I think youth sports have gotten away from what's in the best interest of kids development. You get into, you know hey if I open up an indoor sports center, how much money can I make? So the more leagues I run, the more tournaments I run, the more programs I run, I'm going to make more money,” she says.

Walton also worries that the financial opportunities for clubs and youth leagues results in unneeded pressure. "I think parents feel the pressure that if their kids not doing it, they're gonna miss out. I mean there's no doubt like in baseball, and I hear it all the time. As soon as their kid doesn't play season of select, they're not going to go back to that team."

Carl Lewis says while it's great to dream of what could be, parents and their kids have to be careful when a coach starts talking about a “college scholarship,” or "going pro."

"If they show any aptitude at any level, they’ll say, "Oh my God, they can be a pro one day, and they can be professional." People just get completely discombobulated and jaded to this, to these facts and they invest, invest, invest. And then when you're in a youth sports, "Oh your kid is really good, my God he's great!" Freeze! Okay he's nine, you know. There's no correlation between a nine year old great one and an adult. It just isn't,” Lewis says.

There's something else to consider: the toll of taking sports too seriously at any early age. Dr. Alfred Mansour is a pediatric orthopedic surgeon with Memorial Hermann.

"It's almost a society's unintended consequence. You want your kids to still be able to participate, and so you get a private lesson. And then everyone else is doing two private lessons and so you get a third private lesson. And it's really the snowball, crazy unsustainable cycle where everybody is maxing out what they think they can do at the level when their bodies aren't really built to handle that at this age. Kids are made to play,” says Dr. Mansour.

Doctors say specializing in one sport can raise the risk of over-use injuries. Mansour sees injuries that used to occur only in older kids, is now becoming more commonplace in kids under ten.

And when it comes to kids choosing one sport to specialize in, Lewis says it could have been a big mistake for him had he specialized too early.

"If I was coming up now, around thirteen or fourteen I was clearly more advanced in soccer than I was in track. So I probably would've been told, to stop track and go for soccer all year long,” says Lewis.

Instead, he kept he kept doing both sports through his junior year of high school, and went on to win ten Olympic medals for track in four different Olympic Games.


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