Posts Tagged ‘experience’

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I received a call from a parent a couple weeks ago wondering what to do. His daughter, who is seven, had participated in a “Placement Camp” for her local soccer club. Up to this point she has played rec soccer and the expectation was that she would take part in the club’s team formation for next year. My friend’s daughter likes soccer, but she isn’t any more serious about it than she is about other things she is learning how to do.

There were two teams created for the seven-year-old group and my friend’s daughter was placed on the lower level team. The placement was not in dispute. My friend called because he wondered if the information he received about cost was reasonable. He and his family were being asked to pay $1000 for ten months of soccer and over $300 in team uniform fees. She is seven. She is unsure she even likes soccer all that much. The time commitment was a lot and the bill for her exploration was going to be $1300.

I gasped first, muttered an expletive, and then encouraged him to find some other form of soccer programming for his daughter to play.

“Won’t she get behind?” he worried.

“Maybe,” I said, “but this youth sports thing is a marathon, not a sprint. You don’t have to pay that right now as she’s learning what 7-year-olds learn. If she learns to love it enough to keep working at it, she’ll catch up.”

For the hundreds of thousands of families who pay a lot of money for youth soccer (or hockey, or baseball, or basketball, or gymnastics, or swimming, or… you name it), they will likely jump all over me for thinking the cost to participate in youth sports is getting outrageous.

“We have to pay for good coaching,” they’ll argue.

“Uniform fees run that steep.”

“We’re paying for a higher level of competition.”

“We have to travel to get good competition and exposure.”

“People around here can pay that much.”

Well, obviously, if your association or youth sports group asks people to pay that, they can afford it. (that’s actually not always true, but I’ll save that for another post) The environment and the market will only bear what it can. All I know is that where I live during the schoolyear, a 10-month travel soccer fee of $270, with a uniform fee of $90 is more than some families can pay. Where I live, we may never have the programs to compete with the affluent areas, and in reality, the kids from towns like ours are running a marathon too, but they are on a completely different course. The youth sports marathon course for kids who are not from affluence is a harder course. The hills are steeper, the obstacles more difficult, and to be honest, they start a few miles back when they start. Yet, most of the time we are asked to compete against communities that are not like ours at all.

When it comes to youth sports
Where there is competition, there is divide.
Where there is money, there is disparity.
Where there is both competition and money, there is disaster.

As of August 30th, 2017 Time magazine claimed the youth sports industry was worth $15 billion. “Elite” teams exist in every single sport and with those higher levels of programming, comes a higher bill to pay. I am more and more convinced that “elite” refers less to the level of athleticism and more to the actual elite members of our society. For some families, they rarely consider the impact of their choices. Competition is stiff enough, they don’t need to worry about the poorer families who cannot afford the same opportunities.

Youth sports is just another arena where the “haves” are finding ways to participate and when the “have nots” are left behind, no one really cares. If we want to have a real conversation about the participation numbers of kids on athletic teams, we can no longer ignore the existence of capitalism and the willingness of parents to do everything they can for their own kids. Too often they make personal choices with little to no regard for other kids who are not able to afford the same programming. It’s a dog eat dog world, though, right? So why does it matter? It matters because when kids drop out of sports, or are unable to be a part of teams that encourage physical exercise, belonging, and endless life lessons, we all lose.

I live a dual life. For part of the year our family lives near where I grew up in a suburb of Denver, Colorado. It is an area of affluence with gated communities and the highest level of sports offerings around. During the schoolyear we live in a small, rural town in one of the poorer counties in all of Wisconsin where travel teams are challenging. I see the differences.

My Colorado friends jet-set around the country to take part in high level tournaments, showcases and sports experiences. Intense travel and commitment starts in practically every sport when the kids are ten and eleven, sometimes younger. They pay exorbitant fees for expert coaching and high-end equipment and some of the travel includes 10-day trips to Europe or weeklong tournaments in Hawai’i. This doesn’t even touch the specialized training or camp opportunities they finance. I don’t begrudge my friends for providing these opportunities for their children. They have every right to spend their money how they want. I’m not sure they even have a responsibility to the poorer kids who will never have those experiences, but I do, and I struggle because of it.

I coach the boys’ high school soccer team in our rural Wisconsin town. We compete against schools with robust travel programs that take place the nine months outside of our high school schedule. Travel soccer is not an option for many of the families who live here, even at the $270/year amount. Our travel is minimal and includes mostly away games in the Twin Cities (an hour away).The kids who take part in our travel teams can generally afford it, but there are a number of families who never take part because it is more than they can commit or pay. Soccer for my guys is a low-budget, low-commitment endeavor for sure.

The other side of the coin deals with the families from our town who do have a bit more in resources. Those with more capital are willing and able to take their kids out of our community entirely to pay more for the programming in a larger more affluent place. We lose kids on both ends. Even in our house, we have a couple of kids for whom we’ve made the “exit” decision and I have admittedly agonized about our choices.

There has always been a variety of experiences available to families with money. The experiences are not the same for those without money. Add youth sports in front of the word experiences and all of a sudden it becomes a choice we’re making about how we are educating our youth. All of them. It is not unlike the private education/public school debate, but it is essentially an extension of that.

Does every child deserve an education? Do they all deserve the same sort of education? Do all kids deserve a chance to participate in sports? Do they all deserve a chance to get just as good as the next kid, or to play as long, or to have a similar enhancing experience?

Some of the decisions that keep the machine in motion come down to fear. My friend was afraid if he didn’t pay the $1000 his child would fall behind. Those who can afford it have more to lose if they choose not to pay-to-play. In the affluent communities, there is always another player to take the spot. Thankfully my friend was able to find a program with a much shorter time commitment and a reasonable fee for his daughter’s current level of interest. There isn’t always that choice.

Our family’s decision to engage in the pay-to-play model is more about geography and numbers of participation, but I  agonize because it is still an impactful decision to leave a small community to travel outside of our town. Every exit takes potential resources that would be useful if families were to stay.

For my part, I choose to continue to engage in two worlds. We can afford for our kids to have sports experiences and we have tried hard to keep the experiences at a level that reflects their interest and/or commitment. The older they get and the more they personally invest, the more their dad and I are willing to invest financially. For the soccer kids I coach in our community who don’t have the same resources, I do what I can to provide the highest level of coaching and experience at little to no cost to their families. Coaching the high school team is the best way I can give back to the sport that gave me so much and offer anything I can to the kids who will likely never have more experiences than what I can provide when they play for our school team.

A recent article in Atlantic Magazine further illuminates the growing gap between the affluent sporting families and everyone else. It is an important piece and I am not sure the truth of it can be ignored much longer.

If the youth sports playing field is going to be leveled, who will do it? It won’t be the for-profit companies making hand over fist off of eager families. It won’t be the poorer families who don’t hold the purse strings. It could be the affluent sporting communities if they were to think generously about the value of a system of inclusion and enhancement, but I am not confident that will ever happen. My best guess is that legislation is the way to achieve equity in youth sports, but that sounds like a hard, arduous fight.

What do you think? Should society at large care about the trajectory of the privatization of youth sports? If so, what are some potential fixes that could make it happen?  

Copyright Choosing to Grow 2018                                     www.meaganfrank.com

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Women's hockey team 1911

I don’t know any of the women in this photo. Few people probably do. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have a self-defining experience with sport.

I too am a female athlete…with a story. I played sports to the highest level available to me at the time (except for national team and olympic-level competition). I am a title-IXer, a division I soccer player and a division III basketball competitor. I was surrounded by some of the best female athletes of my era. Ninety percent of the women with whom I developed as a soccer player went on to play for division I college teams. My sister, and longtime training partner and teammate was an All-American. My teammate and college roommate went on to compete internationally in cycling and triathalons. The captain of my college soccer team went on to become a gold-medal winning weightlifter in the Olympics. Another teammate competed with the Canadian National soccer team. I competed against women who played with the US Women’s National team…the same one that won the US World Cup in 1999. For all intents and purposes, my sports story is as complete as practically anyones.  The thing is, I know it is not a story that anyone else knows. I am sure you have never heard of any of the women I describe.

Recently, I read the November 28, 2011 Sports Illustrated article “Sport in America: My Tribe.” It is a fourteen-page center-spread about the sports stories that define us. Two women’s stories were included in the piece. I think the article accurately portrays the American Sports Story. There is more said in the ommission of women’s stories than could be said with a lame attempt to include them.  I get it. Women’s sports are not part of what define us as a society, but they are what define me.  I had a bit of an epiphany as I noted the ways I could hardly identify with the professional sports stories in the article.  My female sports story is not the sports story of those men.

Maybe that’s the reason I have always loved the Olympics more than any other sporting event. At the Olympics, women’s athleticism is legitimately highlighted, and whether it is a man or a woman in an American uniform, the country unites in its support of their efforts.

So what do I make of the plan to create an HBO documentary called Sport in America?  I think the project should be more accurately  called Sport for Men in America. It is not that several of the stories they offer did not affect every American, they definitely did, but there is not enough for the women. When I checked today, of the 165 people who have taken part in uploading their sports story, 17 of them are women.  That is only a 10 percent female voice.

There is a section of the site that offers Moments to Consider, and I shouldn’t be surprised by the fact that there are only three women’s stories offered as potential sports moments to ponder.  Even more incredible is the fact that there are four horse stories. There are apparently more momentous sports achievements involving horse athletes than there are those of female athletes.

For the record, I am not pounding my fists as a crazed women’s libber. I am a firm believer that women are getting fair opportunities to play, to have those great sports moments, to be defined by our own struggles with defeat and victory. And although no one else will ever care about it… those moments define us.

It got me thinking about women in general, and I started to think that there may be an explanation for the popularity of my youth sports survey among the women. Of the 330 responses I have to the survey right now, 65% are women.  There are probably a couple of reasons for that: one, my first book was about marriage, and 99% of my audience were women. Over 75% of the followers on my Facebook page are women, and that is absolutely with whom I engage the most. I do wonder what men might think when they see a call for youth sports opinions and then, if they are curious enough, and they see that it’s a woman, do they hurry and click it or move on to another sports experience? That I don’t know.  Maybe they know, at a very deep level, that their sports story is not my sports story.

Maybe the women have something more to say about the youth sports story, because youth sports is the one place where so many of them can participate. When someone is called a soccer mom, or a hockey mom or a basketball mom, a stereotyped version of an involved sports woman comes to mind.  They can align themselves with the team of moms who participate in sports like they do. They can organize tournaments, wear buttons with their kids pictures, see themselves in the little legs running around, and engage intimately with the athletes performing. Maybe the youth sports world is starting to mimic the professional sports world because everyone wants to experience those defining moments at the highest level possible.

Hear me out for a second.. Maybe, just maybe, the sports story that women can most relate to, are the stories of their kids. Terry McDonnell, author of the SI article writes, ” the excitement comes from knowing enough about the athletes to care who makes the shot and who misses.”  The athletes that women know, the ones with whom they can have to most intense emotional connection, are their own kids. They don’t have women athletes (or very many) with whom they can identify, they don’t fully connect with the testosterone-laden male athletes…but they do have their kids.

The women’s stories and the youth sports stories are not among the moments to ponder for the Sport in America documentary, but maybe they should be. There are plenty of people, including me, who define themselves by those experiences in sport… even if no one else does.

To learn more about Meagan Frank, visit her website at www.meaganfrank.com. Or you can follow her author page here: Meagan Frank or the current sports project she is doing at: Choosing to Grow: For the Sport of It.  Her twitter handle is @choosingtogrow.