Finding the Balance in Youth Sports

A former D1 basketball player level sets as her boys begin their youth sports journey

Theresa Meacham

| 8 min read

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Before I lose all perspective, I’m going to give it a go in writing down a few hopes for what this will be.

I received an email to my inbox with the first basketball roster my boys have ever been on.

And so it begins. The world of youth sports.

My own husband, who has been involved with the industry (yes, I mean that in the full sense of the word “industry”) on both the player and administrator side, has referred to it as “a racket,” “a machine,” “an animal.”

At the same time, we’re signing our boys up for it. They will be doing a short fall league locally here in Champaign.

Why?

Because I believe youth sports can be done a better way.

Whether the business of youth sports ever changes or not, I believe it can be done a better way. And I believe that starts with us — the parents.

It starts with our approach.

Not so much in what we do or don’t sign up for, but more so in how we address it altogether.

Trent and I come from different backgrounds when it comes to youth sports.

I was raised playing basketball nearly every day of the year on an asphalt pad with three siblings and a handful of my brother’s friends from East St. Louis who were daily faithful in our driveway as well.

I played in a couple of AAU games here and there, and most of them were local. My best memories and most profitable formation happened in my front yard.

Trent played on teams and in leagues around Champaign growing up. Gus Macker. Park district. Whatever he could find. In high school, he got started in the AAU circuit. Some of his best basketball memories are from his time playing with the Martin Brothers, an AAU team out of Iowa. He’d travel there for practices as well as games. They played in tournaments all around the United States.

His best memories and most impactful formation happened in places and on teams all throughout the U.S.

My way was not better than his, and his way was not better than mine. We are not planning to raise our kids according to “what you did” or “what I did” in any area, including sports.

Furthermore, youth sports in general are nearly unrecognizable now from what they were 15 to 20 years ago when we were playing. (Was it really that long ago?!)

There’s no way we could use our own experiences as a template, even if we wanted to.

With all that said, our experiences do inform our opinions and our hopes. And you better believe Trent and I have opinions and hopes when it comes to our three sons’ involvement in youth sports.

Oddly enough, with seemingly vastly different upbringings in youth athletics, we have many of the same hopes.

Because our hopes are much more about what we — us, our children, our family — become from youth sports than what we do or don’t sign up for.

So, I’ll start there.

I do hope my boys are involved in youth sports. Somehow, some way. I want them to know what it’s like to be on a team. To learn to navigate personalities, individual roles, collective effort, adversity, success and challenge in the pursuit of a shared goal. I want them to be physically active, as I am a strong believer that moving our bodies is good for our mind, emotions and spirit.

Yes, I want them to be involved.

Involved, but not anchored.

I do not want my family to revolve around my kids’ sports. I do not want us to become slaves to the system of more practices, more games, more tournaments, more, more, more. I don’t want youth sports to become our religion — the thing that wakes my boys up in the morning or keeps them up at night. Or me, for that matter.

I hope sports are a part of what we do, but just a part.

I hope sports are a part of what our family passionately engages, but just a part.

I hope sports are a part of what we enjoy, but just a part.

Hear me clear, I think this is more a matter of mindset and heart stance than anything else. It’s possible to lose perspective with a leaner schedule and maintain it with a more rigorous schedule.

I remember missing many Sunday athletic activities because my parents held a strict church-first belief. I’m not saying that’s the right way to do it. But I am saying this: There was no question on where my basketball game fell in the larger lineup of life’s priorities.

It’s worth it to consider where we anchor our families and what our true priorities stack up to be. And as parents, if we’re having a hard time figuring that out, let’s ask our kids. I bet they know.

I hope one day I can ask my kids about sports and priorities and my hopes and who they’re becoming.

And that they can unquestionably respond that I cared much more about what’s going on in their heart and soul than how they performed on a court. That they confirm my investment was more in them as a person than in them as an athlete. That my greatest moments of pride in who they were had everything to do with their identity over their performance or their ability.

I hope my boys know their athletic pursuits will never take the top spot on my list of priorities… and I hope it never takes theirs as well.

So if youth sports can throw values out of whack and consume our families as the potential monster that they are, why bother?

Because I believe the potential benefit outweighs the risk.

Save parenting, nothing has provided me more lessons in life than the classroom of athletics. When used in the right way, I’m sure my boys will find the basketball court, soccer field or whatever other sort of surface they try to offer the same space for learning. And learning the kind of lessons that matter. The kind that translate well beyond a practice period, a game or even a career for that matter.

The opportunities for growth are endless. The chance to develop character is so prime. Intangible qualities that determine future satisfaction, success and fulfillment in life can be birthed at a tender age in the arena of athletics.

Athletics can bring my boys close to others who don’t look like them, act like them, talk like them or believe like them. And it can put them on the same team.

Athletics can call us up to a place where we have to be our best. And they can humble us to improvement from the times we give less than that.

Athletics can grow us every bit as much or more on the inside as they do our performances on the outside.

Athletics can be so, so good.

When they’re done well.

When they’re approached with intention.

When they’re used as a tool instead of as the end-all.

Youth athletics, indeed, provide a golden opportunity.

And to turn that opportunity into something good is my hope for our family.

I hope my boys don’t follow in mom’s footsteps or dad’s footsteps. But that they learn many of the same lessons we learned through our time in athletics. Only blazing their own trail.

I hope our family uses athletics instead of gets used by athletics.

I hope my boys grow as much in their person as they do in their sport.

I hope one day to look back on “the racket,” “the animal” and “the machine” and adamantly insist that for us, it was not.

Instead, it grew something very, very good.

 

This piece was originally published in The News-Gazette.

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