I hated running after baseball games. After all, baseball isn’t much of an endurance sport, and the punishment of choice for most of my coaches after a poor performance was making us run from foul pole to foul pole for what seemed like an eternity. 

Of course, this wasn’t the case for every team I played on, and it happened mostly after age 13 when baseball became more competitive. But throughout my career, the majority of coaches treated us as professionals — despite the fact that most of us were unable to do our own laundry, couldn’t cook an egg and definitely could not drive.

So, when I took my first job as an assistant coach for 13-year-olds this past summer, I vowed to find alternatives to running as punishment, which I saw as a counterproductive and negative strategy. Perhaps ignorant and naïve, I hoped that my philosophy was one that coaches and parents across the country also shared.

However, upon returning home last month for Fall Break, I found quite the opposite: There was a growing crowd of children who were being trained and treated like professional athletes — which is, in my opinion, a dangerous prospect for the future of sports in this country.

Midtown Athletic Club, a notorious spot for aging parents to relive their glory days on the elliptical machine, had turned into a modern athletic sweatshop of sorts since my last visit. Unlike the “training” of my early years — dodgeball, steal the bacon and flag football — I witnessed 8- and 9-year-olds working out ferociously with trainers.

At one point, I overheard a trainer tell the parent of a young, slightly overweight boy that “he needs to be running every day to be ready for high school tennis,” despite the fact that this boy did not even seem old enough to understand algebra. Later in my workout, I was appalled to see a group of young girls running sprint “suicides,” an exercise I had previously only witnessed in highly competitive high school and college sports.

This growing trend to treat children as professional athletes and specialize their training has dangerous consequences. According to a recent survey conducted by the National Alliance for Youth Sports, 70 percent of children in the U.S. quit organized sports by the age of 13 because “it’s just not fun anymore.”

Though I stuck it out because of my love for the sport, baseball in my hometown of Deerfield, Ill., has a reputation for weeding out kids for that very reason. The increasing pressure coaches, parents and the community put on young baseball players has not only caused kids to transition to other sports like basketball or lacrosse, but has also prompted many to quit organized sports altogether. Overall, Little League baseball participation is down 20 percent since its peak in the early 2000s, a disappointing statistic to read for someone whose experience was almost entirely positive.

By professionalizing youth sports, many kids are no longer exposed to the benefits of organized athletics — learning the importance of teamwork, selflessness and discipline. And apart from minimizing the positive experiences kids like myself had playing sports, increasing professionalization ties into another negative trend in youth sports: specialization and overuse of the body. 

According to Dr. Albert Knuth, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Advocate Children’s Hospital just outside of Chicago, the United States sees 3.5 million youth sports injuries per year, and an estimated 50 percent of those come from overuse.

Where youth sports used to be focused on effort, learning core values and having fun, recent trends have seen kids training vigorously for one sport in order to pursue some sort of college or professional career — like the young boy I saw being overworked at Midtown last month.

The roots of specialization and overuse injuries lie largely in the prospect of college scholarships. Many parents, seeking a way to alleviate financial stress, put their children through intense training programs and hope to see Division 1 offers pile up.

Unfortunately, the reality is gloomy for almost all youth athletes. Only 6 percent of high school athletes will play in college, and only 1 to 2 percent of those college athletes will see their efforts pan out professionally. Though not their intention, big-time athletic programs provide a largely unrealistic expectation for zealous parents seeking an opportunity for upward economic mobility. 

And it all comes down to running. Though I’m a fan of discipline and teaching work ethic, overworking kids to prepare them for a professional career completely defeats the purpose of youth sports.

I hope my efforts as a coach last summer signal a changing direction for the future of youth sports, and that others follow my lead. Though I know it won’t be the case for most if not all parents and coaches involved in organized sports, putting the “fun” back in youth athletics will positively impact the experience of many children and reduce their risk for injury in the future.

While the results might not be visible immediately, replacing foul poles and sprints with thoughtful post-game conversations will have the most positive impact on kids and their sports experience in the long term.

Ben Charlson can be reached at bencharl@umich.edu.

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