How Much is Too Much?
Team sports may be great for kids, but has family life been squeezed onto the sidelines?

By Regan McMahon
Reprinted through the courtesy of Ms. McMahon and the
San Francisco Chronicle

As Friday winds down and colleagues ask, "Doing anything this weekend?" I have a 10-second debate in my mind over whether I should tell the truth and watch them recoil in horror or let them off easy with a simple, "Nothing special, just the usual kids and sports stuff." If they want the facts, or if I feel like playing the martyr -- particularly if I can stupefy the childless -- I’ll give them all the gory details.

"Well, on Saturday, Hayley has a soccer game at 9 on Bay Farm Island, which is about 20 minutes from where we live in Oakland. Her brother, Kyle, has one at 10 up at Merritt College in the Oakland Hills, about 15 minutes in the opposite direction. So my husband will take him to that, and after Hayley’s game is over, we’ll drive up there and catch the second half of his game. Then my husband will ferry Hayley to her volleyball game in East Oakland by 11:30, while she changes uniforms in the car and eats the sandwich I’ve packed. She has a 4-H meeting in Montclair in the afternoon and then a birthday party at 4, so he’ll get her to those while I get Kyle to his baseball game in Berkeley. Oh, that’s right -- I still have to buy the birthday present for her party ...’’

"Gee, I don’t know how do you do it,’’ the listener inevitably responds, as he or she backs slowly away, not sticking around to hear about the crisscrossing logistics of Sunday.

How do I do it? By living a hectic, stressful life. But it’s the normal life of an involved parent these days. At least my husband and I share the load. There are single parents with two or more kids living this same life. And pity the divorced families shuttling kids, sports schedules and uniforms between houses. I’ll never forget seeing a forlorn fourth-grade basketball player sit on the bench for an entire game because even though his San Leandro dad got him to the game in Oakland, his jersey was at his mom’s house in Redwood City.

On a typical weekend, our family of four has between four and five kids’ sports games to attend, in both a city league and their parochial school league, usually on opposite sides of town, sometimes in different counties, often at the same time.

That means my husband and I have to split up, unavoidably disappointing whoever didn’t get Mom or Dad to see their goal or patch them up when they got injured, cheer their great save or give comfort on the way home after their side lost.

And that’s just the weekend. In addition to game days, each team has one or two practices per week that the kids must fit in around homework, term papers, science fair projects, social activities and extracurriculars. Still, our family has it easy compared with those whose kids have made it onto select Class 1 club teams, such as Bay Oaks Soccer in the East Bay. Bay Oaks holds practices two or three times a week and plays 30 to 40 weekends a year. Some weekends, there’s one game Saturday and one Sunday, within an hour’s drive from home. During the out-of-town tournaments, however, they can play up to four or six games, and the family will be spending the weekend at a motel in places like Lodi, Modesto, Fresno or Bakersfield.

Alternatively, the parents split up and one goes to the tournament with the Class 1 club team athlete while the other one stays home with the other kid or kids, going to their recreation league (Class 4) games and activities, which can cause a great strain on family dynamics and fuel sibling rivalry. One parent I talked to said her son hadn’t had a birthday party in years because his birthday fell at a time when his younger brother’s elite traveling baseball team was in tournament play up near Chico, and he and his parents were always there to support him.

So how did we get here? Is there any way out? There’s been an evolution in youth sports, which has been beneficial to many, especially girls, but has it spun out of control? Is it nurturing athletes but starving the family? Is eating dinner together a quaint 20th century pastime? What about downtime? Does a parent have the right to deny a developing athlete a chance to join another team or a higher-level team because she’s going crazy from soccer mom overload? Can anyone strike a balance?

"There is a point at which parents cannot stay healthy and on board when they’re stretched too far,’’ says Dr. Sharon Kappleman, an educational psychologist who has worked at three East Bay Catholic K-8 schools for 25 years, in addition to a private practice in Lafayette, and is the mother of two girls in public high school. "So I think there is some kind of a balance. And it doesn’t mean there’s some absolute balance. But I think it’s really vital that parents and kids are home with downtime, doing nothing."

A study by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research found that from 1981 through 1997, children’s time spent playing structured sports increased by 25 percent, and time spent in unstructured play fell by about the same amount. The study also found that kids have 12 fewer hours of free time a week, eat fewer family dinners, have fewer family conversations per week and take fewer family vacations. Children’s passive spectator leisure, such as watching a sibling play sports, increased from 30 minutes a week to more than three hours.

Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld, co-author with Nicole Wise of "The Overscheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap,’’ has said that afterschool activities are good in moderation, but "we’re buying into an overscheduled lifestyle and it’s burning kids out.’’ He warns that parents are turning childhood into a rat race, and that what children need is creativity, which comes with free time.

"I think each family has to ask themselves, ’Is this healthy?’ ’’ Kappleman says. "And if it’s best for the child that they stay in a couple of sports, that it’s really, truly something that child can handle, then they have to figure out some way of doing it so that one or both of their parents are not becoming ill from it. There isn’t a neat answer, frankly.’’

Joe Di Prisco, a parenting expert and co-author with Mike Riera of "Field Guide to the American Teenager" and "Right from Wrong: Instilling a Sense of Integrity in Your Child,’’ offers a historical perspective. "In the past 10 years the landscape has changed dramatically for girls in sports, ever since Title IX passed in ’72. (Title IX is an amendment to the civil rights bill meant to end gender discrimination; it led to an explosion in sports programs for girls from elementary school through college.) So things have been changing over time. But Baby Boomers whose kids are now in middle school or starting high school -- they’re the ones who are challenging the assumptions and values of family life."

Boys always had opportunities for hockey, Little League, Pop Warner football and school basketball teams, CYO and PAL leagues. But not everyone joined a team. Pre-high school age girls mainly did individual sports like ice skating. I was a competitive figure skater from second through 10th grade, but my parents would just drop me off at the rink, and competitions only happened a few times a year. It wasn’t until girls’ athletics became big and soccer became universally played by girls and boys, regardless of athletic potential and starting in kindergarten, that the focus shifted. Now parents are huddled on the sidelines, commuter mug in hand, for nearly every game and many practices, often with siblings in tow.

"I think the difference is that now the whole family is involved,’’ says Dana Iscoff, a San Francisco psychotherapist. "Before, the whole setup was different. Everyone went to neighborhood schools, kids walked or rode their bikes to baseball practice. Now it’s double the burden. If you had one kid in team sports, you only had to go to one game. But now, if you have two or more, you’re running all over trying to attend everybody’s practices and games and get everybody here and there. Since girls have been more involved, it’s just more burden and more decision-making for the family. I hear this from my patients all the time.

"There is no right or wrong,’’ says Iscoff. "There is no one answer. Each family has to set their own values about what’s important and what kinds of decisions they’re going to be making. There’s also this anxiety that parents have that if their children don’t find some sort of passion for themselves they’re going to go onto the streets and become drug addicts. And it’s nice to see a child develop a passion. That’s the other side of it.

"A lot of people don’t see joining an elite team and having everything revolve around sports as ’giving up’ family life. But in fact this becomes the family life. It’s a different philosophy. It becomes the family model.’’

Barbara Irias works full time as an account manager at an advertising and publicity firm in Alameda and lives in Walnut Creek. With her blended family of five kids, she doesn’t need more reasons to run around. Still, she let her sixth-grade daughter, Shannon, join Bay Oaks last August. "I told her she could join, but she couldn’t do any other sports," Irias says. "So she’s no longer doing volleyball or basketball or cross country [with her school teams]. That was our compromise. Because that would be just nuts. I’d never see the rest of my family.’’

People draw the line where they can, but it’s not easy. Irias says this year Shannon has "really missed not doing the other sports. She likes many other things. She wants to play basketball and volleyball, she’d like to take dance lessons and be in the Drama Club. I think she’s a little too young to just be dedicated to one sport.’’

The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement in July 2000 advocating that children not specialize in a sport at least until age 12 or 13, when they’re more emotionally and physically mature. Their No. 1 recommendation states, "Children are encouraged to participate in sports at a level consistent with their abilities and interests. Pushing children beyond these limits is discouraged, as is specialization in a single sport before adolescence.’’

Andy Bonchonsky, director of coaching for Bay Oaks, says a third of his club’s players are multisport athletes, and that the club doesn’t prevent kids from participating in other sports. In the materials handed to parents of players on an under-11 boy’s team, for example, the coach states that kids who play Little League are allowed to miss one soccer practice per week. Yet some parents report that not all of the coaches are so accommodating. Bonchonsky says the club makes it clear that if kids join at the elite level, when there’s a scheduling conflict, the player’s first commitment is to the soccer team.

Alexi Papas, an Alameda soccer player who’s in her sixth year of playing for Bay Oaks, gave up softball and basketball in middle school because of the demands of her elite soccer club. But last fall, as a freshman at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, she somehow found the time and energy to go out for another sport.

"I made the varsity cross country team and we got second in the state, and I got third place. It did conflict with my Bay Oaks team a little bit. I had to miss a few soccer practices for the track meets, but I never missed a soccer practice for a cross-country practice, and I don’t think I missed any soccer games -- possibly one.’’

She says her soccer coach wasn’t too happy about it, "but in the end I think he tried to understand. I tried to explain it to him that I can’t just not try a different sport out that I think I have a lot of potential in. I made it clear to him that I really enjoy soccer more. He told me the possible negative aspects of me doing it. Obviously missing practice would affect my playing time. But I understood that. And that’s fair.’’ (She also plays soccer for O’Dowd. Bay Oaks’ schedule doesn’t conflict with the high school soccer season.)

"Part of growing up is having to make choices," therapist Iscoff says. "That is also something we as parents have to give our kids. It’s not just giving them opportunities, it’s also giving them the capacity to make choices. Sometimes you can’t do both things, so how do you make that decision? And how do you deal with the loss? But that’s part of what life is about: You can’t do it all.’’

Unfortunately, that’s what Baby Boomers are all about: having it all. Which may explain Boomer parents’ desire to lead their children to greatness in any and all fields. Some parents push their kids to join elite teams at a young age. Class 1 youth soccer starts at the under-6 age group, which means 5- year-olds, although Bay Oaks doesn’t start until under 10, which means 8- and 9-year-olds. Tournaments and state cup competition start at under 11.

Isn’t that too young to have kids committed to one sport and playing at such an intense level? "Part of it is our culture,’’ says Jeff Green, assistant coach of the State Girls’ Soccer team for the age group born in 1990. "We put a bigger emphasis on winning than we do on playing for the love of the game. Our culture’s all about winning. I don’t agree with it, but that’s the way it is. Of course there’s also the lure of a college scholarship.’’

"The fact is, only maybe 1 percent of these kids is ever going to make it to a college team,’’ Di Prisco says. "But parents can’t hear that. So there’s a lot of delusion going on.’’

Green’s two daughters played on Bay Oaks, and one went on to the next level, the Olympic Development Program, and is now a junior in college, playing soccer for UC Davis. His other daughter dropped out of Bay Oaks when she was in high school. She played soccer for Piedmont High, but she dropped the club team commitment to have time to pursue other interests, a choice Green says he supported. "There are a lot of healthy benefits to sticking with the sport,’’ Green says, "when the child -- and this is the important part - - when the child decides that she wants to stick with the sport. What clearly becomes unhealthy is when the parents decide and keep pushing the child to do something she doesn’t want to do.’’

One Piedmont mother of three who had a daughter on Bay Oaks for two years told me she hated how it limited her family’s freedom, especially for things like when they could take their family vacation, and was glad when her daughter quit. Still, despite the hardship, the mother says she saw it as an investment, the benefits of which could be paid out later.

"Who are the kids who get into trouble in high school? The ones who have nothing to do,’’ she says. "The kids involved in team sports are too busy to get into trouble! Plus they learn discipline and focus and develop confidence. And now that she’s quit the club team, she has an appreciation for the precious value of free time that her sisters will never have.’’ Not that she’s got oodles of time on her hands; she made the junior varsity basketball team, and may play club basketball this spring.

Bay Oaks coaching director Bonchonsky reports that he’s encountered many parents who demand more of their kids than the coaches do. "I see families that are so obsessed with their kids being the best that they do more than is healthy.’’ He coached a team that won the state cup in January, competed throughout the spring and at the regionals in June, and thought they deserved a respite. "I remember sitting in a parent group and talking to a parent who wanted their kid to go to a three-day tournament in Sacramento in 100-degree weather three weeks after the regionals. I said, ’These kids need a break.’ And the parent was like, ’No, we’ve got to keep playing.’"

John McMannis, who was president of Bay Oaks for three years and just stepped down in December, says, "There are a lot of Walter Mitty parents who are living their unsuccessful athletic careers through their kids. There’s the type-A, let’s-win-win-win parent who thinks if x amount (of games and practices) is good, 3x must be better. That’s why we are major advocates for the Positive Coaching Alliance.’’ (The PCA is a program started at Stanford in 1998 that offers training workshops to coaches and parents to challenge the prevalent win-at-all-costs mentality and create a positive youth sports culture.)

Things get easier for the harried overscheduled parents when their children are in high school. Kids figure out what sport to focus on, they practice after school at school, they can take the team bus to games, or after a point they can drive themselves. The real burden is in grade school and middle school, when kids depend on the parents to drive them all over the place amid all these scheduling conflicts. And the real "hot button,’’ Di Prisco says, is the elite club teams, which have so much status attached to them and place such demands on families. He says he heard of a place on the East Coast where they’ve banned club sports. "The parents took a vote and boycotted them. They said, ’We’ve had enough. We’ve given up enough time to this. We’re not doing it anymore.’ ’’

"There is an element in every competitive sport where people are over the top,’’ McMannis says. "We have coaches that think soccer is the most important thing on the face of the earth, and as a club and as a society we need to curb that. But the No. 1 influence on kids is their peers. And the values of a soccer team, and the teammates you get and the goals of teamwork and discipline -- I would much rather have my kid be over the top in association with those peers than with other peers.’’

"The biggest crime is there’s too much organized sport and not enough kids just going out to the yard and kicking the ball around,’’ coach Green says. "Things are out of balance in that regard. Kids don’t even think about it. They’d be much more inclined to pick up their PlayStation than to grab a ball, call up some friends and say, ’Hey, let’s go to the schoolyard’ and play basketball, football or soccer. If it’s not an organized game, they don’t do it.’’

"Team sports are great if they’re organized the right way and if their purpose is clearly articulated:" says Di Prisco, "that it’s about sportsmanship, playing hard, competition, respect for your opponent, respect for the game and, to quote Bob Ladouceur, the football coach at De La Salle High School in Concord, it’s about love -- loving your teammates. So those are great things.

"But here’s something you don’t learn from team sports: how to be alone. And what are we talking about here? The development of a child, at any age. And if your child is so programmed into finding meaning exclusively or predominantly through team sports, then there’s not a lot of opportunity to be alone, to entertain oneself, to take chances.

"If parents could just keep it in their minds that this is for the development of these kids, not some mythical goal of success. If they could just ask themselves, ’What’s going to help my kid grow physically, emotionally, psychologically?’ then I think they could get back some of this power, which now the coaches have. But I think it might take a whole generation. There needs to be a little sanity here. I think there needs to be time off. I don’t think seasons should run consecutively. I think parents should take back their lives, should take back family life. I think they can.’’

Revolution in the bleachers! Circle the minivans! Stress is the name of the game we’re playing, and without change, the family will be the big loser. When the basketball coach schedules a tournament on Thanksgiving weekend, I could step up and say, "No, that’s family time." When my kid asks to play two sports in the same season, maybe it’s time to say, "Choose one."

Let’s step back and ask ourselves if the revved-up course we’re on is the only way to live. Even the best teams sometimes readjust their strategy midseason.

Regan McMahon is The Chronicle’s assistant book editor.