We need to have an honest conversation about youth sports. We need to admit to ourselves- and everyone else- that while many kids reap the benefits of youth sports, not everything is a rosy as we want to believe. In fact some young people endure experiences which derail their athletic future and destroy their emotional and physical well-being. Our culture worships at the alter of athletics, and it feels like heresy to suggest youth sports are not always in our kids’ best interests.
My first negative experience with youth sports: a fun run with my younger daughter. A dad continually berated his son, saying, “You’re not going to let a GIRL beat you, are you?”
The current culture of enforced silence which surrounds most youth sports creates an environment where athletes feel they must comply with everything they are told to do by coaches and any other people in a position of power over the team, sometimes with disastrous results.
Mary Cain opens up about her eating disorder
My social media world is abuzz over a New York Times article about Mary Cain ( Mary Cain NYT ). A few years ago at the tender age of 17, Mary Cain was the youngest American track and field athlete to make the world champion team. She was soon signed to the elite Nike Oregon Project, run by Alberto Salazar, an incredibly revered coach and athlete is his own right. While the doping program which existed under Salazar has been exposed by the media, until recently the public did not know the extent of the other emotionally and physically damaging actions athletes endured while part of the Nike program.
In the recently published New York Times piece, Mary bravely describes an environment where female athletes were forced to weigh in before coaches and other athletes. She and other high profile runners, including Kara Goucher, describe an environment where they were openly berated by coaches for being ‘fat’. The pressure to lose weight was incessant. Over the course of her brief time as a Nike athlete, Mary ended up breaking five bones due to poor nutrition. Her career was essentially destroyed by the eating disorder she developed at the hands of Nike coaches. Hopefully now that Mary is no longer with Nike, she can fully recover.
The mental and emotional abuse Mary suffered can derail a young life forever. Sadly, Mary’s story is not an anomaly. I know several runners who developed debilitating eating disorders under the direction of coaches who did not have the athlete’s best interests at heart.
Lize Brittin: A runner whose ED almost killed her
One of the bravest and most outspoken runners I know is Lize Brittin. In the 1980’s Lize was one of the fastest young runners in Colorado. She won four state titles in cross country and track and even won the Pikes Peak Ascent in 2 hours and 39 minutes. She has an incredible running resume from those early years of her running career. But the pressure to be incredibly thin almost killed her.
When Lize took up running in middle school, coaches were already giving her the message that she would only be successful if she lost weight. From that time forward, Lize was constantly told her weight was directly correlated to success as a runner. While being at a healthy weight is optimal for running performance, there is a point where weight loss becomes negatively correlated with speed. After years of receiving the message that the number on the scale defined her, Lize developed anorexia nervosa which not only derailed her running career, but honestly almost killed her. Lize writes a blog about her battle with Anorexia (Lize’s Blog ). She has also published a book and an eating disorders recovery handbook which can be found on her blog.
Other sports are not exempt from creating atmospheres where eating disorders are rampant. Famous figure skaters, notably Gracie Gold and Adam Rippon, have talked openly about their skating careers being temporarily derailed by eating disorders.
Silence and sexual abuse
If we are going to talk about the dark side of youth sports, we cannot ignore the sexual abuse of young athletes. High profile cases of sexual abuse have rocked the sports world in recent years. One of the most disturbing cases is that of Larry Nassar, who as ‘team doctor’ molested as many as 250 kids. Nassar’s abuse continued unchecked for two decades. During that time he inflicted tremendous harm on girls from club and high school gymnastics teams, at Michigan State University, and in his work for USA Gymnastics. (If you have not listened to the podcast Believed about Larry Nassar and the lives he destroyed, you must carve out time for it. This is one of the best podcasts I have ever listened to).
Published in the 1990’s the book Pretty Girls in Little Boxes (Find it at Amazon ) was the first to publication I can remember to address the widespread emotional/physical/sexual abuse in the realms of figure skating and gymnastics. While the tactics at the highest levels of these sports were an open secret, it was not until much later that the public learned these young athletes were subject to unethical and sometimes criminal behavior.
The implications for all young athletes
Unsafe conditions for young athletes proliferate in the enforced code of silence which abounds in the world of youth sports. Athletes are told they cannot question authority figures. The message they receive is, “If you want to be the best and if you want to play- you cannot question your coach, the team doctor, or anyone else involved with oversight of the team.” Young athletes are expected to work hard, be emotionally tough and never complain, question or offer their own opinions. Do what the coach says. Do what the doctor says. Do not ‘whine’ to anyone- including your parents- because then you might be dropped from the team.
Parents are pressured to let kids handle any and all sports related issues. Parents worry that expressing any concerns whatsoever may lead to retaliation against their child. Coaches at all levels, and club directors, have a tremendous amount of power over players and their families, whether they realize it or not. Parents need to teach kids to recognize the difference between a healthy respect for authority figures and blind allegiance to someone in a position of power.
Parents and Coaches: Can’t We all Just Get Along?
I fully understand why coaches work to keep parents at arm’s length. I have witnessed my own fair share of parents bullying coaches, players, referees, and even other parents. I have also witnessed parents who kill the coach with kindness because they think it will help their kid. There are a lot of crazy parents out there, and frankly I don’t want to deal with them either. Coaches have very valid reasons for wanting parents to stay out of their way.
Yet parents should feel wary of any environment where kids are expected to do blindly follow what an adult says without question. Though none of us wants to be ‘that parent’ many parents are not entirely comfortable with being told to sit down, shut up, and just hand our kids over to another adult. Parents should not cede all control to a coach, club director or any sports director. There need to be clear boundaries and rules which guide discussions between parents and coaches. I believe some form of communication between parents and coaches is helpful for everyone involved.
We need to foster environments where kids are encouraged to put in hard work without putting their own mental and physical well-being at risk. Parents need listen to coaches and let kids have the space to learn self-advocacy, responsibility and all of the other skills needed to be functioning adults. Coaches need to remember these skills are not developed all in one shot. In a perfect world, parents and coaches would work together so our kids can assume age-appropriate responsibilities over time.
Parents need to remember coaches are not your child’s surrogate parent. It is fantastic when our kids develop a great relationship with their coach, but it is not the coach’s job to do your job. Parents must do the hard work of parenting our kids. While we cannot inoculate our kids against all of the evils in the world, we can attempt to create an environment of trust and open communication at home. Kids need to feel security at home. If they don’t get what they need at home, abusers will spot them a mile away as easy targets.
Finally, we all need to get a handle on the ‘win at all costs’ mentality. Sports mania creates kids who believe their only value in life is winning the next race or the next game or performing a perfect routine at the next meet. Our culture so clearly reveres athletic success that our kids believe the only way to gain status- or even to be liked- is dependent on their athletic achievements. For most athletes- even those who have reached the elite levels of their sports- that success is fleeting.
I hope we can put sports into the proper perspective and encourage healthy athletic participation. I do not want to read any more stories about kids who have been exploited and destroyed by the coaches and the parents who are supposed to protect them.