By: ALISON BURMEISTER
Sports is a major part of your family dynamic. Your sons get recruited for Division I college basketball teams. Your daughter, still in high school, plays for a highly competitive volleyball team and on track to continue in college. In her senior year she announces she doesn’t want to play after her last club season this spring.
Recruitment and sport scholarship dreams are on hold. What do parents do? Mom, Kirsten Jones, knows. You take a step back and you pivot.
Kirsten Jones, author of Raising Empowered Athletes-A youth sports parenting guide for raising happy, brave and resilient kids has been helping parents and athletes navigate the jungle of youth sports for years.
Jones is a former Hall of Fame D1 volleyball player, 15-year Nike executive, motivational speaker, Peak Performance coach, pod caster (with co-host Susie Walton), mother to three athletic children, married to Evan Jones, former pro-basketball player for Germany and Hungary, and now author, admits her book is not about raising athletes.
Her book is about developing compassionate, confident, resilient, well-focused young adults who passionately pursue their goals both on and off the field.
Jones knows raising athletes is a balancing act for parents and kids. Especially as children begin to play multiple sports and join club teams. Practice and games run late in the evening, making it difficult to find time to do homework. Weekend tournaments start early and run all day long, which takes time away from friends and family.
“Gone are the days” said Jones “where we all played at least two or three different sports for fun, our parents were barely involved and very few gave a thought of playing past high school.”
Jones, who is from Montana recalls, “they didn’t even have club sports where I grew up.” When she decided that volleyball was her path, she said her parents had “ZERO” expectations that she would play in college. It was Jones’ passion for the sport that drove her, not her parents, to succeed and earn a spot on William & Mary’s D1 volleyball team in Virginia.
In her book, Jones breaks down how we got into today’s hyper-competitive environment and offers useful pointers for parents to navigate the jungle of youth sports and your child’s place in it.
“Youth sports should be about friends, fun and fundamentals”, said Jones and in the first chapter of the book asks, “Whatever Happened to Rec. Ball?”
She attributes the change to parents getting caught up in the “king-of-the-mountain game.” They want what’s best for their children and yet somehow want them to BE the BEST and hire private coaches and put kids on multiple club teams.
Parents buy specialized training gear, shuttle kids to late night practices and pull them from school to travel to out of state for tournaments—all before the age of high school.
Jones relates the shift of parent involvement in youth sports to three key factors.
First, family life changed. Moms joined the workforce in the early 70’s and by the 1980’s, double-income families were common. With moms and dads gone all day kids needed a place to go after school.
Second children in the United States started to fall behind on the global academic front. With more money and less time, parents began to hire tutors and start to micromanage their child’s academic lives which eventually carried over into sports, too.
And finally, Jones tells the story of a six-year-old boy, Adam John Walsh, who was abducted and murdered in 1981. His death attracted national attention and in 1983, Hollywood made a television movie about it. Parents began to worry that their kids were not safe playing in their neighborhoods until dark. The concept of “be on your own” was out and “adult-led” involvement was in.
The more involved parents get, the more pressure kids feel.
“Parents have FOMO (fear of missing out),” Jones said, and warns parents against overscheduling a child. Parents feel “if one kid is doing a camp, your kid needs to be doing a camp” or they won’t be as good as their teammates.
Parents need to take a step back. We all know that one parent who thinks it’s their duty to yell at their child from the sidelines, and also at other players, coaches, and refs. It seems some parents are living out their childhood sports dreams through the bodies of these little people, who are just trying to have a bit of fun.
Jones asks parents, “Whose dream is it?”
Starting as early as grade school, parents set their sights on a future of fame and fortune through sports like they see on television and social media. Whether parents are living vicariously through their children or hoping for a little financial pick-me up, it’s easy to see how so many parents fall into wanting to create the next superstar athlete.
When it comes to youth sports Jones said, it is important to just let them play, get a little exercise and hang out with his friends.
For Jones, the sign of a good youth sports organization is “not how many titles the team won, but how many kids sign up the next year.”
She assures parents that at a certain point later down the road, you’ll know if you have the next D1 athlete or even better the next Agassi, Venus or Tiger. Until then let youth be curious and have fun.
“Avoid the burn out,” Jones said. “Seven in ten kids drop out of sports by age 13 because they aren’t having fun anymore. The stress is not worth it when they could be hanging out with friends, scrolling social media or worse going down the spiral of drugs and alcohol.”
She proposes avoiding burnout and building resilient athletes with a “Mindset Toolbox.”
Some tools like yoga, journaling, meditation, podcasts, breathwork are good for both parents and athletes to improve your mental outlook and become “grittier” when stressful situations arise.
It important to set goals and create routines that help athletes develop positive habits to deal with stress. She also suggests parents and athletes surround themselves with supportive people such as a counselor, coach and/or sports psychologist, and purging those who don’t.
“The focus should be on raising healthy athletes,” she said. Before the age of 14, Jones recommends your child delays specialization and plays multiple sports. Focusing too early on one sport you “run the risk of injury, burnout or peaking too soon.” When you do begin to specialize, she recommends you take one month from a sport at least three times per year for mental and physical recovery.
Playing multiple sports early on has many benefits. Kids learn to move their bodies in a variety of ways. It helps to limit the stress and strain on a particular body part. They interact in an array of social scenes and understand what it feels like to be a beginner, to attempt and overcome new tasks.
When Kirsten realized her daughter’s goal was no longer to play sports in college, she was fine with it. “Goals change and so do teens minds.” Jones said, “My daughter can’t decide what she wants for dinner, how can she decide what she wants three years from now?”
It is important to parent your kids through the whole process. “It’s not fair to expect your kids to have it all figured out. If she wants to pivot and maybe pivot back, that is part of the process.” Now as her daughter applies to college, Jones knows more than ever how important it is to raise a well-rounded child whose identity is not just the sport they play.
Other key factors for developing youth are nutrition and sleep. We assume the active kid is going to be in better physical shape and maintain a healthier weight, but if all they are eating is processed food and sugar it is going to be hard to maintain any level of endurance and physical fitness for an extended period of time.
Consistently getting plenty of sleep is important for our children’s growing brains and bodies. “Sleep is a superpower,” Jones said. The American Academy of Sleep recommends six-to-12-year-olds get nine to 12 hours of sleep per 24-hour period and 13- to 18-year-olds get eight to 10 hours of sleep each night. Sleep helps to build our immune system, increase our metabolic rates, and boost our creativity. When it comes to sports, Jones said, “sleep helps make ten percent of the shots.”
With so much time and energy invested in our kids’ sports, it is no surprise that the very thing that used to be about friends, fun and fundamentals is a $20-billion business today.
According to Jones, “one in five U.S. families spends more than $12,000 a year on youth sports.”
Is it worth it? Jones really encourages parents to look and see who is driving the process. Just because your kid is good at shooting lay ups at age ten 10, does not mean they are going to be willing to practice and take their game to next level. All the time and money you spend does not guarantee your child a spot in the NBA.
Your child must want this for themselves, and they must be coachable. In other words parents, “check your ego.” There is always room to improve and learn. Jones said, “passion comes from building competence.”
Sometimes taking a step back (moving to a lower-level team) can help them gain footing and stability so they continue to play and learn. The more confident a child is in themselves, the more risks they will take.
In a world as competitive as youth sports, it is important to make sure this is really what your kids wants. Putting your youth in the driver’s seat of their own success will not only set them up for their sport, but also “when life happens” your child will have the agency within them to figure it out on their own.
So, let’s say your kid really does want to take it to the next level. What do we do next? Jones wants to remind us of the ever-changing landscape of recruiting sports culture.
“Take the college athletic scholarship off the table,” Jones said, noting that only one in 14 of high school athletes go on to play a varsity sport at any collegiate level and fewer than two percent of high school athletes (1 in 54) are awarded athletic scholarships to compete in college, according to the NCAA. (The new transfer portal, which allows athletes to change schools without having to sit out a year as they had to in the past, has made it even more difficult for incoming freshman to get offered a spot on the team roster.)
No matter what sports experience you and your child create, know that if the result is an empowered, kind and confident child, you have done a good job.