for parents

As I am preparing for my TEDxColumbus talk and fine tuning my presentation I began thinking about what inspired me to focus on youth sports in the first place. Here are my thoughts:

Years ago, when I first learned of this alarming statistic, all of my energy and passion had been directed towards creating an environment and the programming that would help keep more kids in sports. I’m very happy to say that our work has been very successful, and that I am seeing those drop out rates change drastically, at least within our programs.

If 75% are quitting, that leaves only 25% of our children to make up our high school and intercollegiate programs. When you think about the caliber of talent necessary to succeed at these levels, that doesn’t sound so out of proportion. As I now learn what is happening with these student athletes as they enter into the collegiate ranks, I believe that we have cause to be seriously concerned on another level.

First, I refer to an article by Martha Anna Tudor, called Tough. In this report, the author examines an interesting dynamic within the collegiate setting where record numbers of students are in need of counseling, and struggling with a wide variety of psychological and emotional disorders, most notably, depression. Schools are taxed incredibly in an attempt to keep up with the growing need to increase their support services in their counseling centers. The cause for these problems, in part, stems from our children growing up in an environment where they were constantly praised for fairly ordinary achievement. Now that they are in college and the competition for grades is revved up, they cannot cope with the fact that they are getting a “B”, or that they are no longer the best in their class. The psychological toll on these young adults is pushing many of them towards drugs and medications. Some prescribed, some not.

At a time when I believed the huge drop out rates would ultimately have this incredible taxing effect on our health care system, it’s not heart disease and diabetes that is creeping in (just yet), but the initial impact is actually coming in the form of psychological disorders. Ultimately, I do think the lack of fitness and athletic participation will lead to these aforementioned maladies.

In a September (2015) article in Sports Illustrated, called Abuse of Power, the author addresses what seems like an epidemic of abusive coaches within the collegiate ranks. It is pointed out that most of this is in the form of psychological abuse. In the past, we would only hear about those cases of physical abuse, but perhaps due to social media, we are hearing more and more about the effects of emotional and psychological abuse. It may or may not be a new problem, but it is certainly gaining awareness. In the article, it is suggested that perhaps our travel-team world is responsible for producing athletes who need more emotional support, or perhaps the helicopter parents cannot loosen their bond so that the college coaches can inject the discipline necessary for success at this level. I am of the opinion that many of our youngathletes do not possess the necessary mental toughness needed to succeed at this level.

According to the American College Health Association, 41% of male athletes had “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function” and 52% “felt overwhelming anxiety.” The figures for women jump to 45% and 59%, respectively. Further, 14% of athletes said they had “seriously considered suicide,” with 6% having attempted it. A 2013 Georgetown University Medical Center study reported depression as being twice as prevalent among active athletes than those who graduated.

With a recent report that 25% of college athletes quit in their first year, one has to wonder who is driving this bus? Is it the parents or the kids? For me, it’s pretty clear that many of these athletes are simply trying to fulfill the dreams of their parents, and once they arrive on campus, they feel liberated enough, and perhaps courageous enough, to quit.

So, now we are faced with this incredible dilemma....are our children worse off if they quit or what is the likelihood that they will suffer the emotional damages described above if they stay in sports? While these seem like dismal options, I believe there is still plenty of hope for the positive aspects of sports participation to shine through.

At the root of the problem, we have parents who are fearful that if they don’t provide their children all of the necessary opportunities for success, that they may get left behind. We know that this extrinsic motivation does not work. This is where we must re-educate our parents and make them part of the solution. There are better ways.

- Steve Locker