Why do taxpayers spend so much money building athletic complexes and paying coaches?
Why do parents introduce their kids to organized sports at younger and younger ages and spend hours transporting them from this venue to that camp, often eating on the run and exhausting themselves and the family budget in the process?
In short, what is the value of sport to society?
I asked Travis Dortsch that question at the end of a long conversation about the value of sports. He is a former professional football player, four-sport prep letterman and now assistant professor at Utah State University who studies such things as part of the university’s Families in Sports Lab.
“Parents, if they are truthful, want to create a better person, not a better athlete,” he said. “Becoming a better athlete is part of the process, but it also needs to include being a better person. If we are building better athletes and not building better people, we have failed at our mission.”
Working with doctoral candidate Ryan Dunn and undergraduate research assistant Michael King, Dortch’s most recent study was called “Family Financial Investment in Organized Youth Sports.”
The trio used an online survey of 163 families throughout the United States to look at the direct and indirect effects of the money families are spending on youth sports.
The research revealed that the more families spent, the more pressure to succeed children felt. And the more pressure they felt from parents, the less enjoyment they experienced in sports. The more kids enjoyed the experience, the more motivation they had to continue participation.
“Sports parents can’t treat their kids as a commodity,” said Dortsch.
The researcher said adults investing thousands of dollars for their kids to be on an elite travel team with the expectation that their kids might earn a college scholarship or play professionals, those are expectations. He said kids pick up on those expectations and sense the pressure that their parents want something in return.
So what advice does Dortsch have for parents and coaches of young athletes?
First, at the beginning of each season, parents should sit down with their child and ask the young athlete what his or hers goals are for the season.
“If parents align their goals with children’s goals, there will be less friction and less dissonance,” he said.
Adults might be surprised at the answers.
Dortsch cited a research report where children were asked why they participated in sports. Reasons such as having fun, learning new skills and making friends came in near the top. Winning came in sixth place.
That said, as a former professional and college athlete, Dortsch knows that winning matters. It just must be put into perspective.
“Winning and having fun are not mutually exclusive,” he said, adding that “in child development, a six year old shouldn’t care at all about winning but just learning lessons that can be applied to life like making friends and having fun...Being good and winning matters, but not at the expense of life skills.”
The researcher urges parents to let kids try many sports when they are young and to ask themselves whether the goal of a child playing in college or professionally is the kids’ or the parents’.
Finally, Dortsch said parents should view investing in their kids’ sports program like they would a trip to Disneyland. They pay to get in the front gate, enjoy the day together and bond as a family. But at the end of the day they shouldn’t expect to take home Mickey Mouse or Space Mountain. What they have paid for is the experience.