August is almost upon us, and as a friend pointed out to us this week, football is just around the corner. Football in the bay area means the Bucs and the Bulls, but more importantly, it means the return of Friday night lights on high school fields.
Which is why, in a slight change of pace, TampaSportsFitness is recommending a news series that deals with the challenges of youth sports programs.
In an age when some parents pay thousands of dollars for special coaches to help their children excel on the field, the image of youth sports as the last bastion of athletic purity, the one place where players and fans can enjoy themselves, is being challenged. With the hype and glory of professional athletics only a Tweet, Facebook page, or YouTube video away at all times, the changing culture of youth sports has produced as many new concerns as it has taken advantageous steps forward.
Thankfully, the writers at the Tampa Bay Times have noticed this, too, and they’ve done something about it.
The series, titled Varsity Blues, has proven to be one of the most interesting reads about youth sports produced in the bay area. A team of writers spoke with numerous coaches and sports figures, both locally and nationally, and produced a series that highlights the numerous pitfalls and booby traps of youth sports while offering guidance and sign posts of hope along the way.
The series proves timely, as fall school sessions are drawing closer and bringing football back to everyone’s attention. The series also has personal heft on the TampaSportsFitness team, where some of the memebers have been wrestling with this subject since being upgraded to parents.
Some of the subjects are surprising. One problem the series has highlighted is the concern from coaches and parents that the sheer number of athletic programs now available (year-round ball clubs, multiple leagues, travel teams) makes it harder for kids to learn the values of hard work and perseverance. If a child fails to crack the starting lineup, they now have more opportunities to leave one club for another, potentially dissuading the kid from working harder for more playing time. The writers also highlight other areas of concern, like the surprising lack of available funds for many local prep sports programs, overtaxing a child’s still-developing body with year-round play, and the rise in diva behavior from players and parents. The writers do all this, however, while stressing the notion that the message can and should still be “let ‘em play,” even when that seems impossible.
The Parents and Diva sections both show how easy it is for both players and parents to be seduced by even the slimmest possibility of a full-ride college scholarship and the potential riches of a professional career. The writers also discuss the surrounding culture that celebrates the hype and tends to view young athletic prospects the same way Henry VIII would have appraised a potential new bride.
There have been exposes aplenty on the disturbing results of too much professional emphasis being placed on youth sports. H.G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights is the gold standard here, although TampaSportsFitness also recommends Robert Andrew Powell’s We Own This Game for its look at Pee Wee leagues in Miami. But the Tampa Bay Times series is an excellent read for anyone who has a child involved in sports because the writers do more than pay lip service to the familiar problems of youth sports, like parents confusing volunteering on their child’s Little League team with being the agent for their child’s athletic career.
Proof that there’s still hope, however, can be seen in the story about the young athlete/parent relationship of J.D. Edwards, a Pasco football player, and his father John Alexander, a former collegiate basketball player.