Two Very Different Approaches to Sports Parenting


The other week we came across this great post by KJ Dell’Antonia on the New York Times about the increasing amount of “Spartan-like” intensity many families are adopting when it comes to youth sports. Her article was written as a response to Lisa Catherine Harper’s essay “The Crazy, Intense Schedule of Competitive Youth Soccer? Bring It On, which celebrates the stringent discipline that comes with serious sports playing.

As KJ says in her article, “Our hope is to help them participate in their team sport of choice with suitable team-supporting rigor, while giving them plenty of time and space to explore other things.” She believes giving her kids all the support they need when playing sports, but also giving them the time and opportunities to play other sports, as well as try other extracurricular activities.Two Very Different Approaches to Sports Parenting

All four of her children play youth sports (mostly hockey) to some degree, so KJ has witnessed firsthand just how intense the level of play and competition can get, not just among teams, but actually among teammates.

“Parents who, when they see their children playing fewer games than Sally across the street, or practicing less often than Bobby who is in Connor’s class, worry that their children won’t be able to catch up, won’t make the high school team or won’t have fun, because they will lose all their games to the kids who spend more time on the ice or on the field. Those fears lead to a vicious circle, with every league trying to keep up with the league next door.”

She argues that this is not the way to raise well-rounded kids, and even USA Hockey says that the intensity with which many of today’s children play their sport isn’t the way they want it to be.  The USA Hockey’s American Development model actually has U-12 teams playing fewer games and spending more time on their home rink in practice sessions designed to build skills. The organization also actively encourages young players to play other sports, believing that creates more well-rounded players.

Her advice is that parents who want their kids to take a less intense approach to youth sports need to speak up and not let the Spartan sports parents out-voice them and change the face of youth sports forever;

“We need to actively tell coaches and associations that we are happy with two practices a week, with one game per weekend, with one tournament per season — or none. We need to seek out teams where players are not punished for missing a few practices or a game for a piano recital, and hold on to a world in which you can love a game without dedicating yourself (and your parent) to it full time.

Meanwhile, Lisa Catherine Harper is 100% behind the “training in Sparta” approach to youth sports. She wants her daughter to be sharp and pointed, like a dagger, and isn’t as worried about making sure her daughter is well-rounded.

“It’s always good to work hard and learn a skill well. Sustained, intense, focused training teaches her that hard work pays off. Every season she is stronger, faster, more skilled — and she knows it. It’s no secret that this kind of physical confidence in what her body can do is especially valuable for a girl. As is the relationship with her father that’s a result of her sport, which he also played…

Increasingly, the world requires focused skill. The ability to specialize, to know what it takes to be an expert, these are vital. From this point of view, learning what’s necessary to kick a great penalty shot is a skill that translates.”

She actually loves the discipline that comes from belonging to a more high-powered sports team, as it pushes her daughter and her teammates to come together. She feels like recreational leagues are more likely to be blinded by the “star” athlete while on a more competitive team you either win as a team or you’re going to lose as a team. She argues the real lessons to be learned from youth sports, such as teamwork, dedication, and the value of hard-work, become a lot more evident in competitive youth sports as opposed to recreational teams.

This last quote sums approach her attitude towards it all;

“But you wouldn’t tell your child, “You’re not going to win a Nobel Prize, don’t work so hard.” That makes no sense. We believe in telling them: “Work as hard as you can at whatever you love. Find people who are better than you, learn from them.”

Who do you side with? Lisa Catherine Harper and KJ Dell’Antonia?