by Dan Bauer

It was 1970, the summer before my eighth-grade year in Spencer, Wisconsin that I attended my first sports camp in Woodruff, Wisconsin. It was Ken Anderson’s, the UW-Eau Claire legend, Badger Basketball Camp, and I would return the following summer to complete my sports camp experiences. There were no T-shirts, award ceremonies or report cards, just a bunch of kids dreaming of being the next Pete Maravich or Willis Reed.

The week came and went, and we all returned home to a summer much like the movie, The Sandlot. The rest of our summer camp was held in various neighborhood backyards.

Jump in a time machine and fast forward fifty years to today. If you are a teenager involved in athletics your summer will be an endless assembly line of specialized ice sessions, puck shooting in your garage, games, weightlifting, sprinting, more games, tire rolling, mental training, yoga, rock hauling and stickhandling a golf ball instead of putting one. If you are a rare three-sport athlete, you will need an air traffic controller to navigate your summer schedule and control your parental helicopter.

As the summer thermometer rises, so does the pressure on athletes and parents to do more. The mental payload athletes carry is much greater than ever before. There seems to be no responsible limit on what we ask them to do while chasing that mythical athletic stature we can boast about. The WIAA season, once the centerpiece of the journey, is now just another season amongst a laundry basket of team jerseys. It is a steeple chase filled with finite obstacles like time and money. There are more games, more specialized training both physical and mental and more stress to keep up.

More is better, and apparently infinite in the steely eyes of driven parents.

AAA teams pop up everywhere and offer athlete assistance as if they were coming to rescue your car from a roadside breakdown. However, their track record isn’t as stellar as the AAA tow trucks. Providing players with another 20-30 games isn’t what most of them need. “One properly run practice is the equivalent of eleven games when it comes to puck touches,” says ADM Regional Manager Ty Hennes. Games perpetuate habits, good or bad, and players most often fall to their level of training in game situations, rather than rising above it.

“If I’m a kid and you tell me that I can play this number of games, I’m probably going to do it because I’d rather play a game than practice. And I’m sure that parents would rather watch a game than practice,” according to USA Hockey’s Adam Naylor. Add in the pressure parents feel to “do enough” to keep their child in this race to greatness and summer vacations and family time quickly disappear. Sports physician Dr. James Andrews says, “The fear that the player down the street is getting ahead causes parents to push their kids to do more.” And today more is always seen as better.

The game has changed and sports now take precedent over nearly everything. I can remember a time when Spooner youth hockey wouldn’t schedule games on Sunday morning out of respect for those who attended church regularly. Now we think nothing of pulling kids out of school for multiple days to attend distant tournaments. Sports have risen to the top of the family priority list.

The youth sports obsession is the new normal, but at what cost?

To be clear I am not condemning the type of effort it takes to navigate a typical young athlete’s summer schedule. My belief in the value of the athletic experience is ironclad. What I question is, when do kids involved in sports today just get to be kids? Do they ever get a clean break from all these sports commitments? Is there a day they wake up in the summer with nothing to do and all day to do it? Or is this the only way we can get them off their phones?

There is plenty of pressure out there telling you to do more. I am asking you to consider that sometimes less is more. Giving your kids a break to re-charge and to sincerely miss their sport of choice can be a great gift. The physical toll this type of non-stop training can cause is often evident, but the deeper emotional burden can be hidden away. Ultimately kids don’t want to disappoint you, so the unhealthy beat is allowed to go on. Parents keep signing them up and they keep saying yes.

The collateral damage seems obvious, but the fairy-tale ending justifies the means. From the emotional stress athletes harbor inside, to the impending extinction of the three-sport athlete, to the drain on finances and family time, to the death of summer childhood autonomy—the red flags are prominent. The heat from this kitchen is one you should want to escape.

But we heed no warning and turn up the heat by adding another date to the summer sports log.

Summer’s here and the heat is on. Here’s hoping you and your family find the courage and common sense to take your foot off the gas and step out of the sport’s Grand Prix and spend some time enjoying a relaxing slice of summer.

Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach in Wausau, WI.  You can contact him at drbauer13@gmail.com