Playbook

The True Cost of Youth Sports

Dec 11, 2019 1:00:00 PM / by Marianne Engle, Ph.D.

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It’s no secret that youth sports can require a huge investment—of time, money and emotions.

Yet, parents too often find themselves blindsided once the season is in full swing: travel team costs, dues, equipment, safety gear and tournaments can quickly add up. In fact, a recent survey by TD Ameritrade found that 20 percent of parents whose children participated in club or elite competitive youth sports were spending $500 or more a month on sports for each child, with 1 in 10 parents surveyed spending more than $1,000 a month.

The survey also found that 20 percent of these parents say they were certain their children would secure an athletic scholarship, with the majority of parents believing that college scholarships will cover more than half of tuition. 

The truth is, for most of these families, there is no financial return on their youth sports investment: only about 2 percent of high school athletes earn athletics scholarships for college.

“Many parents believe investing in their children’s athletics will pay off in the form of a college scholarship, or even making it to the pros,” said Dara Luber, senior manager of retirement at TD Ameritrade, in a press release. “While children’s involvement in sports leagues can be greatly beneficial in helping to develop life skills, parents should never lose sight of saving for retirement and building a long-term financial plan for the well-being of their family.”

When we are emotionally invested in something, no matter our financial situation, we are more vulnerable to making irrational decisions. As parents, it’s hard to not get emotionally invested in our kids’ sports success. While some parents can easily afford the expense that comes with sports participation today, according to the TD survey, others are working second jobs or dipping into their savings to fund the activities.

All of us paying for those year-round training programs, travel, equipment, facility and coaching fees have helped turn youth sports into a $17 billion a year industry. This youth-sports industrial complex has been driven by increased professionalization and privatization, but what has been lost in the process?

THE PRICE WE ARE PAYING

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Neighborhood pickup games are long gone, having been replaced by sleek and elite travel teams, which often resemble a professional program more than kids playing with friends. But does this current structure still support the purpose of sports as a developmental experience where kids learn how to work as a team, develop life skills, and—most importantly—have fun? It seems that under this new system, it’s not just misguided parents who are paying the price.

A 2016 study found that the more money families spend on youth sports, the more pressure their kids feel—and the less they enjoy playing their sport. The pressure to perform is too much, and too soon for some kids. Many kids feel they need to make a return on your investment by scoring at high-pressure tournaments, winning at all costs, earning a starting role, or the holy grail of sports participation, securing an athletic scholarship.

 

What's the True Cost of Youth Sports? Download the Quiz.

 

While largely driven by good intentions, this increased intensity motivates many parents to encourage their children to specialize in one sport at a young age, aka early sports specialization. Early sports specialization has been found to cause higher rates of burnout, stress, and overuse injuries like tendinitis and stress fractures. Specialization limits our kids’ opportunities to play other sports for fun and may be counterproductive to those scholarship goals: A UCLA study surveying 296 NCAA Division I male and female athletes found that 88 percent participated in an average of two to three sports as children, and 70 percent did not specialize in one sport until after the age of 12.

TIME TO GET REAL

There is nothing wrong with wanting to help your child realize their sports dreams but remember to consider the financial and time commitments as well as the kids' emotional and physical developmental needs when making decisions about your children's sports experience. Pushing early specialization is rarely a good thing. Finding various opportunities for learning different sports and refining skills is more sensible and often leads to stronger athletes.  

Most children who love sports benefit from the personality and behavioral values that can develop from exposure to multiple sports. Even players who are chosen for college teams often do not receive the kind of financial support that parents had hoped for. You will know in adolescence if it is worth spending extra for coaching and training. 

For your youngest children, know that taking them to the park and playing with them is worth just as much as spending extra money on organized athletics.

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Topics: coaches, athletes, parents, youth sports

Marianne Engle, Ph.D.

Written by Marianne Engle, Ph.D.

Marianne Engle, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist and a sports psychologist. Her clients have included professional athletes and teams from the NBA, PGA, and the America’s Cup sailing race in addition to elite athletes in ice skating, baseball, tennis, soccer, water polo, squash, dressage, volleyball, etc. Marianne has written a sports psychology program for youth athletes and coaches to enhance commitment, physical and mental skill building, and group dynamics. She is currently on the faculty of the NYU Langone Medical School. She has held faculty appointments at Harvard, MIT, and UCSD in addition to being a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Sport and Society. She is a board member of the NYU Sports and Society program.