Who’s Going to Save Youth Sports?

Journalist Linda Flanagan exposes the modern youth sports industrial complex for what it is — and finds hope in a surprising place.

Laura Lambert

| 5 min read

Penguin Random House

What happened to youth sports? The skyrocketing costs. The relentless schedules. The insanity on the sidelines and in the stands. What happened to the fun? Ask any parent who played Little League or rec soccer when they were young — youth sports, today, are barely recognizable.

One thing is clear: The sea-change didn’t happen by accident. In her new book, Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania Are Ruining Kids’ Sports—and Why It Matters, athlete, coach and journalist Linda Flanagan teases out the societal forces that are transforming the business of play. 

And she shared with MOJO some insight into how we might find our way back to what we love about sports.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

So, how on earth did we get here?

Really, there were three major developments. 

First, the world of youth sports is now inundated with money. Tons of businesses are capitalizing on parents’ hunger to give their kids an advantage. This has been happening since the 70s. That’s when funding for public parks and rec centers declined. Around the same time, with Title IX, suddenly there was an influx of girls who also wanted to play, and a legal obligation to provide equal opportunities for them, which created a greater demand for sports. Private enterprise realized, Oh, there’s an opportunity here. Obviously, things are going to get warped when that happens. 

Second is how parents view children, and their responsibility to children, has changed over the last 40 years. Certainly, my parents didn’t have the view of my generation — this idea that children are the center of our lives. Children moved “from being our employees to our bosses,” as Jennifer Senior put it in her book [All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood]. The kids are in charge. We do what they want. We’re beholden to them, and they become a reflection of our worth.

The third big change is college. That’s a massive incentive for this craziness. College is ridiculously expensive, increasingly hard to get into (or that’s the perception) and there’s increasingly more money dangled in front of parents in terms of scholarships. In reality, few athletes go on to play in college, but it’s a reason to do [the travel teams and the tournaments], even if it’s expensive and insane.

And thanks to these societal changes, youth sports exists at the extremes. On the one hand, fewer and fewer kids play, especially at lower socio-economic levels. On the other hand, competitive, pay-to-play youth sports have completely taken over the lives of some families.

Right. Parents really find it hard to say no. And it’s hard for me to understand why parents continue when it’s so all-consuming. It affects not only the running of the family but the interaction within the family, the parents’ marriage, any kind of social life apart from kids sports. 

I want to get back to first principles. Just because everyone else seems to be putting their 3rd grader on a travel team, why are we? What are we trying to achieve?

Who suffers the most in this new era of youth sports — the kids? The parents?

I have to say, it’s the kids. They’re the forgotten constituency. It’s ironic because in theory it’s all for them. But in reality, it’s about the coaches, the parents and the leagues who are setting terms for play and making it all happen.

In your research, are there people, places, leagues or teams that are doing it right? 

One great example, recently, came from a piece by Fred Bowen in The Washington Post. He profiled a soccer team in Massachusetts. The parents didn’t want to do travel, so they rejuvenated their local program. A lot of parents bought in. It was well-attended. There’s hope there. It is possible.

And what’s their secret?

The secret is the parents. They’re the ones who control what the kids do. They set the terms. 

Somehow, parents have lost their agency in this world. Sports are not compulsory. This isn’t mandatory. It has just evolved to feel that way. 

There has to be a better way. 

Parents are so nervous about making different choices, they think, But everyone else is doing it. Then some people realize it’s crazy and make a change.

So often, people say parents are the problem with youth sports. But they’re also the solution. 

There’s an anecdote in your book about a woman you call Jane, who basically says no to an unplanned, inconvenient exhibition game during a tournament. You write:

“If you raise your voice against some of the excesses—be they sunrise games in distant states, or catered team dinners once a week, or a suggestion that every kid buy the new warm-up shirt (the possibilities here are endless)—you might find that other parents, and even the coaches, will happily get behind you. They were just waiting for someone to go first.”

That’s where change starts, right?

Yes. Seize your agency as a parent. This is your family.

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