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SportsLife: 'Youth sports are broken'

KARE 11 is kicking off a recurring feature called SportsLife, which will look at issues that impact young athletes and their families. The topics will come from YOU.

GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. — WATCH: SportsLife on KARE 11's YouTube channel

Ask most parents whose kids are involved in sports, and they'll tell you it's not just a pastime, it's a lifestyle.

Balancing the time demands of practices, games, and personal skill training with school, church and family time can drive even the most sane family unit bonkers. And it's not just the time crush that makes things crazy. Dealing with overzealous sports parents, demanding coaches and perhaps your own unrealistic expectations of what a child will gain from sports only increases the pressure and stress. 

KARE 11 is kicking off a recurring feature called SportsLife which will look at issues that impact young athletes and their families, and the topics will come from YOU. An initial Facebook post generated a wealth of ideas, and we hope the conversation will continue. 

Our goal is to access experts who are leaders in the field like Dr. Nicole LaVoi, Director of the U of M Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport. In this installment LaVoi discusses what parts of youth sports are broken, WHY they're broken, and what parents, coaches and kids can do about it. 

"Youth sports are broken in many ways. The umbrella of the brokenness is that youth sports has become overspecialized, commercialized and highly exclusive," LaVoi explains. "It’s become very expensive, and a lot of kids are being left out in terms of who can play and who cannot."

Travel teams can tax a family's budget and together time. Because of the big investment in both, Lavoi believes some sports parents react by choosing one of two paths.  

"What we know from the research we’ve done at the University of Minnesota is that parents are on a spectrum of engagement," LaVoi explains. "We have highly over involved, overzealous parents, who are THAT sport parent that we all know, not a lot but some, to the other end of the spectrum where we have parents under-involved and not engaged because of working, multiple jobs, transportation or just lack of interest. So we have a spectrum of engagement. When we have the under-involved parent we know kids like their parents to be involved in a healthy, positive way. And then the overzealous parents, they’re the ones that are screaming, yelling and jumping up and down, yelling at the ref and yelling at the kids, creating what I call a toxic tornado on the sidelines."

That toxic tornado has the power to suck others in. Seeing and experiencing negative behaviors from parents on the sidelines or coaches on the bench can lead young athletes to think it's acceptable and they model it, showing disrespect toward opponents and referees. That kind of behavior comes along with the win-at-all-costs, high pressure environment. 

"Really, at the end of the day, playing sports should be about being physically active, having fun, and developing social, emotional and physical skills. When it becomes all about winning, and winning at all costs, then we start compromising what youth sports should be."

LaVoi believes the key to keeping the sports experience positive is to involve your child in the conversation. Ask them what they like about sports, what they don't, what stresses them out... and what YOU can do to make the experience more positive.

"One, it should always be about the child. Is the child having fun? I often tell parents go home, sit down with your kids, your child, and say 'Is soccer fun, and do you want to keep playing… and if not, why, and let's find you something else to do.' Because inactivity is not an option, so you have to do something. Maybe you don’t like soccer anymore." 

"Secondly, it should be fun. Especially at the youth level, it should be about fun and learning and developing and making friends. And as they get older, it can be more about winning but we want kids to play and have fun."

"Third, the parents should check themselves in terms of what they’re doing on the sidelines. We know from research there are two major behaviors that sports parents do. They yell at the ref, and they coach from the sidelines when they’re not the coach. Now if parents could just agree to stop doing those two things, the youth sports sidelines will already be more enjoyable, not just for the parents but for the children. And this is all about them." 

Have an idea for a topic you'd like to see in SportsLife? Text your idea to 763-797-7215. 

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