Youth sports: How times have changed!

For most of my life, I played soccer usually from August to November. Most kids played for the neighborhood recreational leagues, and a very select few played on ‘travelling’ teams, which meant that you travelled 20-30 miles every so often to play kids from other towns.

Most coaches were players’ parents who volunteered their time 2-3 days per week for practices and games. Costs for participation were very affordable, such that kids from even poor families could participate. For a modest fee, you were allowed to practice and play in games, entitled to 1-2 sets of uniforms (usually t-shirts made by a local artist), and even got water and orange wedges during games. The individual player was responsible for getting to and from practice/games (which wasn’t usually a burden since the fields were typically located at a local school or park), buying cleats, shin guards, and perhaps their own ball. The sum of all fees and expenses would be around $300-$400.

Boy, have times sure changed. Soccer, and most youth sports, can be played 365 days per year. There are outdoor and indoor soccer facilities, with various playing surfaces, that allows for play even during inclement weather and during the cold winter months. Local, recreational leagues have largely been replaced by soccer clubs /academies that are privately owned and operated. They have state of the art playing and training facilities with full-time, paid coaches (the coaches are often ex-college, semi-pro, or pro soccer players themselves).

Sign-up fees include membership to the club/academy, several lavish uniforms (both home and away versions, with both practice and game attire) and full participation in practices and games. Most, if not all games, are usually at “tournament centers” away from the home site and can be hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Practices are usually 4-5 x/week with tournaments and games 3-4x/month.

When travelling to these tournaments, parents are hit with all sorts of expenses including hotel fees, gas mileage, air travel, food, and all other miscellaneous expenses for themselves, their child, siblings, friends, and anyone else that they bring along on the trip. On top of that, there are usually hefty fees per team (usually $500-$600), that parents are ultimately responsible for that go to the owners of the privately-owned tournament centers. These centers usually host games 8 hours a day 2-3 days a weekend and can accommodate hundreds of teams (boys and girls) of various age levels. In addition, the center also makes money from the sale of food, beverages, t-shirts, lawn chairs, and athletic equipment. Even for those of us who aren’t very good at math, you can see that these centers probably make upwards of $25,000 or more in a single weekend. With tournaments going on most weekends of the year, both indoor and outdoor, the yearly earnings of one of these centers can be quite staggering.

Some people feel that our youth athletes of today are lucky to have state-of-the-art training facilities, year-round sports exposure and the ability to specialize in a sport. Whether the sport is soccer, baseball, basketball, or football, many athletes and parents feel that with increased training and practice, the athlete will have a significant chance at becoming professional.

As a result, many youth want to play their sport at all costs, even when they are injured. We are seeing a staggering increase in traumatic and overuse injuries in youth sports as a result of year-round play and increased competition. With pressure from parents, coaches, and themselves to perform at a high level and win, youth athletes of today are missing the point of sports participation. Let’s face facts; the odds of any child making it to the professional ranks in their particular sport are extremely low. (In fact, in most sports the chance is probably less that 0.5%).

Far too often in my office I hear, “Well, I know my ankle is sprained but I have a tournament this weekend” or “I know I have a bad bruise on my knee, but will I be ready for regionals in two weeks?” Athletes and parents should be reminded that even professional athletes, who get paid to play sports, take a break and rest as soon as they suffer an injury. As parents, coaches, and healthcare providers, we need to ensure the focus of youth sports remains on exercise, socialization, team building, and most importantly, fun.



Read more Sports Doc for Sports Medicine and Fitness.