Is “Fear of Missing Out” Ruining Youth Sports?

Source: Changing the game project – http://changingthegameproject.com/fomo-ruining-youth-sports/

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I remember the day I coached my son TJ’s first soccer game. He was only five, and I was so proud, so excited, and couldn’t wait for him to play the game I loved.

There was one problem.

He didn’t want to play.

When the game was about to start, he said, “Dad I don’t want to play today.” I was OK with it and the game went on. That week he went to practice, had lots of fun, and I thought all was right in the world. The next weekend, I was equally as excited for TJ to play his first game. Sadly, he was not.

As I set starting lineup he again said: “Dad I don’t want to play.” I don’t think he liked the screaming parents and coaches from the previous game, as well as all the hustle and bustle that is five-year-old soccer.

This time I was angry. I was embarrassed. I was this A licensed, “all-star coach” and my own son refused to play. TJ, on the other hand, found a cricket to play with over by the fence. He was content. I was a mess.

What is wrong with my son? Why won’t he play? What if he doesn’t like soccer? Isn’t he going to fall behind?

On the car ride home, I felt the need to address this issue, (likely to make myself feel better, as he was fine.) “So TJ…” was all I could say before my wife, who was in the passenger’s seat, karate chopped me across the chest.

“What was that for?” I asked her incredulously.

“Really, didn’t you just write a whole book about this?” she said with a stern look.

Indeed I had. But I was scared. I was afraid TJ was missing out on a game I loved. I suffered from FOMO: the Fear Of Missing Out!

On that day, and many days since, I’ve had FOMO moments watching my children play sports. I saw other kids their age who were better players, and wondered “what have I failed to do?” I still see other kids who play only one sport, improving quicker than mine, and worry mine will fall too far behind. I see kids attending additional skill training sessions and summer camps that mine do not. And I worry that my kids may be missing out.

I know I am not alone in feeling this way. I hear from parents all the time who feel stressed and anxious about their child’s sports experience. Are my kids falling behind? If they don’t do extra training now, will they make the travel team? Will they make the high school team? Will they have a chance to play in college? These are very legitimate concerns for the modern day sports parent. They might even keep you awake at night.

But here is the thing: they are just kids. They are fine. They need to want to do these things, not be forced to. Your child’s path is not supposed to be every other child’s path. Yet the Fear Of Missing Out is such a persistent feeling it scares me. It makes me feel inadequate as a parent. It makes me worry I’m letting my kids down. You too?

I should know better. I have seen too many times how too much, too soon ends in injuries or burnout for kids who are forced down a path they didn’t choose, or who were never asked: “do you want this?” I have seen too many 12-year-old zombies walking around fields, with no joy in their step, and their love of the game long gone.

FOMO is one of the primary drivers creating a toxic youth sports atmosphere and making so many children walk away from sports far too soon.

We must overcome the fear.

As parents, we love our kids and we have great intentions, but FOMO causes us to focus only on the present, and not the long term. FOMO compels us to make all the decisions and steal ownership of their sporting experience. FOMO leads us to suck the enjoyment out of the sport in pursuit of dreams of stardom and scholarships. FOMO drives many sensible folks to take kids away from playing with their friends, search out the winning team, and make them specialize in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. FOMO makes us feel that we are letting our kids down by not providing them with every single opportunity, regardless of costs, time commitments, and the stress endured by our family.

Parents, I give you permission to take a deep breath, look at the evidence, and choose a different path. I give you permission to love your kids for where they are today, and not what they could be tomorrow. I give you permission to love yourself, even when you say no to a coach or a great opportunity because you simply cannot add one more thing to your plate or that of your child. I give you permission because the fear of missing out is ruining youth sports. It is time for all of us well-intentioned, well-educated parents to put a stop to the FOMO.

How? Answer these questions:

What do kids want from coaches? Sure, kids like to be on successful teams and have chances at scholarships, but what they want most according to research are positive role models who care about the person, and not just the athlete. They want coaches who respect and encourage them, who provide clear, consistent communication, who teach them the game, and who listen. Are you evaluating your child’s next coach on that, or simply wins and losses?

Why do they play? Kids play for enjoyment and social aspects of sports. As they get older, they may define enjoyment and fun a bit differently than an 8-year-old, but one thing I can tell you is the day college, professional and Olympic level athletes stop loving what they do, they stop playing. So will your child. Ask your kids “why do you love playing, and what makes you love playing even more?” Then do more of that!

Are sports an extension of the things we value as a family? I am amazed how many times strong-valued families turn a blind eye to the values epitomized by their sports coaches and organizations. People who would never let their child lie or disrespect an authority figure consistently allow sports coaches to do those things, and are afraid to speak up because of FOMO, or because they are afraid their child might get blacklisted (and at times they are right, what does that say about an organization?)

Do we have sport/school/life balance? One day there will be no more practices to drive to, then what? Will sports still have provided your child and family with worthwhile, lifelong lessons in character, overcoming mistakes, working with others, and more? Did you spend any quality time with your spouse the last fifteen years, or take a non-sports, family trip? Do we question the coach who tells us we have to choose between grandma’s 90th birthday or a league game? I’m not criticizing the families who make incredible sacrifices to allow their kids to play sports. I’m merely asking, “should we?”

These questions are far more important than asking ourselves “is my kid missing out on a scholarship?” or “Is my child going to make the high school team?” These questions are all driven by fear.

As Sophocles said, “All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride.” We cannot be too proud to admit the current environment is based on fear, and while it serves the needs of many, the athletes are rarely at the top of that list.

Here are a few thoughts on how to remove FOMO from your child’s youth sports journey.

  1. When in doubt, ask your child: What should I say on the car ride home, or on the sideline of your game? Do you really want to work with a private coach, or spend summer weekends at tournaments instead of with friends? Do you want to play multiple sports, or only one? How can I support you on your journey? If you are unsure, ask your child what he or she wants. The answer may surprise you.
  1. Read the research: It is a lot easier to combat your fear of missing out when you know you are standing on a foundation based on solid, scientific research rather than conjecture and “keeping up with the Joneses.” I am amazed by many so-called “professional coaches” who’ve read no books or research, nor attended a coaching course in years (or ever), but who pontificate about getting to the next level. It’s up to parents to know right from wrong and hold coaches accountable as we would school teachers. Start learning from experts in the sport. Here are some links to articles we have written on various topics with plenty of links to more research:
  1. Demand more from your youth sports organization: Don’t look at the coach’s win/loss record. Dig deeper. How does he treat the players? Does she invest in them as people first? How many quit the team every year without good reason? What happens to all the kids who don’t get a scholarship? Would the parents on the team recommend this coach to other close friends or family? What are the organization’s core values, and do they hold everybody accountable for them or do they turn a blind eye to poor behavior by parents and coaches and “just win baby”? What are they willing to compromise to win? What will your child get out of this experience if they don’t win everything or get a scholarship? The answers to these great questions will speak volumes about the organization and coach. They reveal true intention.
  1. Be part of the solution: If you don’t like the direction of your youth sports organization, be part of the change you wish to see. Coach, or run for the board of directors. I am convinced the vast majority of parents are great people, and if we’d ban together and start asking our youth sports organizations for the right things, great things will happen.

The next time FOMO sets in, take a deep breath. When you start to worry your child cannot miss this one weekend opportunity, or if he doesn’t go to the all-star camp at age 10, or he is falling behind, take a moment and reassess. Is her career really about to come to a screeching end for taking a few weeks off? Even Mia Hamm took a season off from soccer as a child because she was burned out, and it worked out OK for her.

We cannot allow the Fear Of Missing Out to be the primary driving force in youth sports. We cannot let the small percentage of charlatans in the coaching, camp and sports facility world continue to manipulate us with fear, and convince us we are bad parents if we don’t go to every event, play year round, or get in front of college scouts in middle school. If your child has the talent, drive, and love of the game, he or she will play long enough and hard enough to get noticed. The only thing for certain is that all kids who quit or have career-ending injuries before high school do not play in college!

Please, everyone, take a deep breath and let’s reclaim sports for our kids. Let’s ignore the FOMO. Ask your kids what they want, and support the things they are passionate about. If they want to do certain things, and they are within the realities of your family budget and time, by all means, try to make them happen. But if your child looks at you and says “I really want some time off, I really want to take a break from soccer,” then let him do it. Let her be with her friends.

Don’t let the Fear Of Missing Out in youth sports be the cause of your child missing out on his or her childhood. That would be the greatest tragedy of all.

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