How to Tell When Competition Gets Unhealthy — Warning Signs

By Alex Perdikis

Extracurricular pursuits are supposed to be all fun and games — until they’re not anymore. That switch can flip in an instant, seemingly without warning. If you’re not looking out for the warning signs of unhealthy competition, you could wind up putting your child at risk without fully realizing it.

Fortunately, recognizing the signs of unhealthy competition is a straightforward matter. These five red flags don’t by themselves prove that your kid is playing in an unhealthy environment, but they should give you pause if and when you see them on the field.

Authority Figures Stress the Importance of Winning

Winning is important, even in the egalitarian world of youth sports. But it’s not the most important thing at this level — not even close. Any coach or league figure who says otherwise is off base, plain and simple. If your child starts to internalize these messages, think long and hard about whether you want them to continue in such an environment.

Individual Performance Is Prized Above Teamwork

Kids play sports to get stronger, faster, better coordinated. They also play to have fun and work together as a team. Individual performance on the field is a crucial component of any team’s success, but it shouldn’t be the be-all-end-all of youth sports. Environments that prize individual performance and winning tend to be the most unhealthy, as they allow a handful of star players to monopolize attention and resources.

Insults Go Unchecked

The playing field is no place for bullying. Parents need to watch like hawks for evidence of verbal taunting, as it’s sometimes difficult to tell what kids actually mean when they speak. What sounds like reasonable banter might actually be entirely unacceptable.

Rough Play Is Rewarded

Rough play is another form of unacceptable competition, even in contact leagues that reward tackling and hitting. Referees and coaches have an obligation to interrupt and correct intense physical play, even if no one gets hurt. When the opposite occurs — for instance, when coaches cheer players for making unnecessary contact or berate referees for calling fouls — parents need to take notice.

Parents and Coaches Pressure (or Berate) Referees

Referees are much maligned and sorely underappreciated. While you’re not going to agree with every decision he or she makes, the spirit of healthy competition is predicated on respect for everyone involved in the game, including those charged with enforcing its rules. Watch closely for coaches or fellow parents who make sport of referees, who often aren’t much older than the players themselves.

Addressing Unhealthy Competition

Diagnosing unhealthy competition is the easy part. Actually doing something about it is a fair bit more complicated.

Your approach to unhealthy competition is likely to vary based on what’s actually taking place, the reactions of other parents, and the responses of coaches and referees on the field. Absent clear-cut cases of bullying or imminent physical danger to your child and others, the best course of action may be to wait until the game has ended to consult with other parents, coaches, league officials, and others in positions of authority.

Appropriately, addressing unhealthy competition is likely to be a team effort. If your parent cohort reaches a consensus that your children are in fact playing in a toxic environment, you’ll need to show solidarity and present a united front to the league — or, more awkwardly, to the parents or coaches responsible for the unhealthy competitive environment.

Like the children out on the field, you may sustain a few scrapes and bruises along the way. But, as they say in politics, those same children are counting on you to do right by them. Don’t let them down.

Why Every Child Needs to Play Youth Sports

By Alex Perdikis

Many athletes (and athletic parents) wrongly assume that the case for youth sports is self-evident. Everyone understands the importance of exposing kids to robust physical activity and the soft skills inherent in team-based activities, right?

Nope. Acceptance of youth sports is far from universal. Many parents have legitimate reasons to be leery, whether it’s the physical risks of contact sports like football or the potential body-image issues bound up in pursuits such as gymnastics.

Others simply don’t give much thought to the benefits of youth sports, focusing instead on academics and non-athletic extracurricular pursuits that tangibly prepare kids for the real world and enhance their appeal to selective colleges and universities.

Let’s face it: not every kid is going to be the next LeBron James. That doesn’t mean kids without generational athletic talent shouldn’t try their luck at youth soccer, basketball, softball, and the like. Let’s take a look at some incontrovertible facts about youth sports and explore the most potent arguments for why every kid deserves a chance to play.

Kids Actually Like Playing Sports

Shocker, right? Even the most bookish kids like to stretch their legs and quicken their hearts from time to time. Youth sports provide productive outlets for excess energy — better than traipsing unsupervised around the neighborhood or disrupting other kids’ learning in class.

It’s Healthy

The health benefits of youth sports have been well documented: lower obesity rates, lower insulin resistance, better cardiovascular health, better musculoskeletal health. These benefits can persist long after kids stop playing, even as their lifestyles become more sedentary — though studies show that people who played sports as children are more likely to be active adults. Parents looking to get their kids off the couch and out into the sunshine need look no further than their local youth soccer or Little League organization.

It Encourages Teamwork and Cooperation

No matter how self-centered kids are (and they’re very often self-centered), team sports have a way of putting them in their place. Not in a punitive or abusive sense, of course — rather, by imparting the value of cooperation and teamwork. Kids who play team sports are far more likely to work effectively in ever more collaborative higher education and work environments, producing results of which “armies of one” can scarcely dream.

It Teaches Crucial Life Lessons

Kids are optimistic by nature. Many children, especially those from privileged backgrounds, imagine that things will always go their way, that parents and others will always have their backs, that they can have or experience anything they want.

Well, that’s of course not how things go in the real world. Even though the stakes are (thankfully) not that high, every kid who plays youth sports experiences some measure of adversity: losing games, getting benched during crucial plays, facing down dirty play or insults from opponents. While painful, such experiences turn kids into well-adjusted adults ready to face the world with realistic expectations.

Scholarships Do Happen

It’s counterproductive for parents to assume that sporty children will qualify for athletic scholarships to their dream high schools and colleges. Only a tiny fraction of youth sports players make the scholarship cut, and an even smaller percentage go on to play professionally.

Then again, it’s realistic for talented young athletes to at least aspire to partial or full scholarships to the schools of their choice. For families on the lower end of the income scale, athletic scholarships create opportunities that simply wouldn’t be available otherwise — namely, the quantifiable and not-so-quantifiable benefits of four-year degrees from accredited colleges and universities.

Youth Sports: Why Aren’t the Children Playing?

By Alex Perdikis

What used to be a rite of passage when growing up – playing baseball, soccer, football, basketball or running track – is no longer a part of many children’s lives. Youth sports participation is on a serious decline. Even sports like soccer, which grew by leaps and bounds between 2008 and 2012, is experiencing a slowdown. What’s causing the lack of participation? Can anything be done to stem the tide?

What’s Missing?

Many experts, including Michael Bergeron of the National Youth Sports Health & Safety Institute, believe the missing element is fun. Bergeron says, “We have to be aware of single sport specialization, overuse, overworking kids searching for elite athletes,” which causes children to leave youth sports and never look back. Parents and coaches who focus on one sport, because of scholarship hopes or their own wishes, place tremendous pressure on youth athletes. For young athletes, that can lead to depression, burnout, chronic fatigue and unnecessary injuries.

The Cost of Youth Sports

The cost of participating in youth sports has skyrocketed. In 2012, nearly two-thirds of middle and high school students who participated in sports paid for the privilege. Costs have spiraled exponentially since then. According to a New York Times article, spending on youth sports can be greater than 10 percent of a family’s gross income. Travel, equipment and fees add up to an investment many families can no longer afford.

Are Youth Sports Safe?

Sports safety has come under intense scrutiny of late. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that the number of concussions among teens aged 14 to 19 who play youth sports rose a staggering 200 percent in the last decade. High profile professional football players, such as Chris Borland and A.J. Tarpley, retired after playing just one year in the NFL because of concussion and brain damage concerns. As more data on the long-term risks of youth sports comes to light, the ranks of youth sports players (particularly football players) are likely to thin further.

What Can Be Done?

Parents and coaches have a tremendous opportunity to expose children to the benefits of youth sports while minimizing the admittedly real risks. Follow these tips to encourage children to play — and play safely.

  • Give children a choice. Don’t push them into a sport because you think they’ll be good at it or you hope for an athletic scholarship later on.
  • Purchase the right safety equipment. Make sure all equipment and gear works as it should and fits correctly.
  • Emphasize good sportsmanship. Even better, practice it yourself. No yelling insults at parents, coaches, your child’s teammates or the competition.
  • Be supportive, win or lose. Encourage children to express their feelings about the competition and how they did, but remind them of what they did well. Emphasize the positive.
  • Don’t assume your dream is the same as your child’s. Most likely, it’s not.

The benefits of youth sports are numerous and well documented. Children learn to keep fit, build camaraderie, work well with others, build character, deal with diversity and become resilient through youth sports, all life skills they’ll use throughout the rest of their lives. Perhaps if parents, coaches and program administrators change their focus from cutthroat competition to fun for all, youth sports numbers will stop declining.

John Oliver Is Right: Women’s Soccer Deserves Better

By Alex Perdikis

All it took was the 2015 Women’s World Cup Final between the United States and Japan. An estimated 25 million American viewers tuned in to watch the match, a giant leap in viewership from the 17 million who watched the men’s final the year before. Since the U.S. Women’s World Cup win, participation in girls’ soccer programs has surged.

The surge in popularity has not been without its growing pains however. Recent developments such as wage discrimination lawsuits and new programs to develop world-class players are working to challenge old assumptions while building on soccer’s growing popularity.

The Equal Pay Debate

The U.S. women’s national soccer team is more profitable, watched more and wins more than the men’s national team. In a lawsuit filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in March 2016, top female players, including Hope Solo, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn, accused U.S. Soccer of wage discrimination. Solo said, “The numbers speak for themselves.” The men’s team members, she added, “get paid more to just show up than we get paid to win major championships.”

The current debate is not the first time women’s soccer in the U.S. has struggled to gain respect. In the 1980s, there was no women’s soccer Olympic event and no Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup in which to compete. That began to change after Title IX became law. The federal civil rights law prohibited the discrimination based on sex of any federally financed educational program or activity. Public school programs were mandated to give girls equal access and training programs for sporting activities, including soccer.

One of the first beneficiaries of Title IX was Mia Hamm. Hamm, along with teammates Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett, dominated the first FIFA sponsored tournament for women, called “The M&M’s Cup.” But the U.S. public barely noticed.

The team finally caught the public eye at the 1996 Olympics. The women’s team earned less than the men and only earned a bonus if they won the gold. Playing on the largest stage of their lives, team members realized the opportunity they had to both gather a following and make a difference. After negotiations failed to reach a resolution, the team held a strike and refused to report for practice sessions. When the Olympic Committee failed in its attempt to bring in nonunion players, the team won the fight and went back to work.

Many believe the latest lawsuit, which has yet to be resolved, is simply the next step on the road to equality for women’s soccer and female sports in general.

Developing Tomorrow’s World-Class Players

U.S. Soccer announced early this year that it will launch a Girls’ Development Academy Program beginning in fall of 2017. The new Development Academy will impact thousands of young female athletes. Through specific curricula, training requirements, higher-quality games and added resources, the new program will focus on developing world-class players. The program’s core values include coaching and teaching athletes in a positive learning environment. Competition will range from local and regional matches to regional and national events.

Avoid the Nightmare: Become the Most Supportive Sports Parent You Can Be

As manager of his oldest daughter’s travel soccer team, Alex Perdikis has seen it all. He’s seen supportive parents who know how to keep losses in perspective and he’s seen the stuff of nightmares. If you’re a parent of a child who is active in sports, you know how easy it is to fall into the nightmare trap. Here are a few tips to make sure you don’t become the infamous “bad” sports parent.

Nightmares and Sports Don’t Mix

Former long-term coaches Bruce E. Brown and Rob Miller conducted an informal survey of student athlete’s worst memories from their high school and youth sports days. The most common answer was “The ride home with my parents.” Most of these parents were not the typical screamers or second-guessers. Most of them thought they were making constructive comments and suggestions. The problem is, according to Brown that right after the game or competition is exactly the wrong time to talk about improving technique. Children need that time to regroup and distance themselves. It’s also likely that the coach already gave instructional feedback. The ride home from a sporting event should not become a child’s worst memory.

Make It Fun

Sports activities have so many positive benefits. Sports is a great way to learn problem-solving skills, learn to work well with others and develop a spirit of sportsmanship. Many of these positives are obliterated if parents lose focus. Young athletes get more out of their sporting activities if they think of them as fun. They don’t need the pressure that comes from overemphasis on winning. They take their cue from you. If you treat the child differently after a win than a loss, it sends a clear message that winning is more  important than doing their best.

Children also follow your example when it comes to the coaching staff. If you criticize coaching decisions, either at the game or at home, the child loses respect for the coach. Children should also see their parents root for the entire team, not just them individually.

It’s very easy for parents to self-identify through their children. Perhaps you had a promising athletic career that was stalled because of injury and you’d like nothing better than to see your child succeed where you fell short. Of course, you want what is best for your child’s future. The problem is that your goals may not be the same as your child’s. Don’t lose sight of your child’s individual wants and talents or assume they are the same as yours.

Be a Parent

Being a parent means supporting and teaching through example. Student athletes have coaches to teach them their game, but parents play a different role. Remaining confident and upbeat during games, avoiding criticism, displaying true sportsmanship, respecting authority and treating others, even those on opposing sides, with kindness is necessary if you want to become an ideal sports parent. Words aren’t enough. You have to be a shining example of acceptable behavior and decorum to teach your child the true life lessons that sports activities provide.