Where’s the balance in youth sports?

When I was a kid, no one played just one sport. No one.

Not in elementary school. Not in high school.

There were football, soccer and baseball seasons. Basketball and tennis, too. My pals and I even dabbled in street hockey, bike racing and volleyball. Put a folding chair on its side at each end of a swimming pool, and you had goals for water polo.

The vast majority of these games were played in the neighborhood, on the road, in back yards or at the school playground. We did our share of organized youth leagues and school teams, to be sure, but pickup games dominated our childhood.

I wasn’t especially good at anything. I’m still not. But that was never the point. It was about friends, freedom and fun. It was about playing outside, our way. The more games you knew how to play, the more chances you had to play.

This was my first reaction to reading the Review-Journal’s excellent in-depth feature of last Sunday, “At what cost?” Sports columnist Ed Graney and writers Tristan Aird and Mark Anderson examined the exploding industry of youth club sports, sports camps and private coaching, which allow kids to focus on a single sport year-round. Parents shell out big bucks, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars over just a few years, to boost their kid’s chances of becoming an elite high school athlete and earning a college athletic scholarship.

Every year, a minuscule few earn full rides, and about 2 percent of athletes get at least a partial sports scholarship. Meanwhile, untold thousands of prep athletes wind up with nothing, “leaving families with the realization that what money could have been used for college was instead devoured by the big business of travel teams and personal coaches.”

To say nothing of the incredible amount of time put in by both kids and parents. Mom and dad spend hours driving, watching and waiting, sometimes daily, and their young athletes grind out hours of practice, instruction and workouts. Weekends are filled with road trips. Vacations are dedicated to out-of-town camps.

This is absurdly common today, and it was absolutely unheard of just a few generations ago.

My parents worked. The idea of driving my brother and me all over town, every night, was a nonstarter. Our sports leagues held practices and games at schools and parks we could get to ourselves, either by foot, bike or bus.

Moreover, the best athletes at my high school and others in my Arizona hometown — the ones who actually got college scholarships — all played multiple sports. Two and three varsity letters on jackets were the norm among athletic boys and girls who had no expectation of ever competing in college. It was fun.

That so many kids are pushed to give up that variety of activity and competition today is a tragedy.

So what gives?

I have my own theory, and I wrote about it in a series of columns last summer.

The incredible rise of club sports, travel teams and private coaching over the past two decades has coincided with a dramatic shift in this country’s parenting culture. That culture “has regressed from one in which children were herded outside to join friends for all manner of games and unstructured adventures, to one where children are kept inside until an adult can plan an activity and is available to accompany them,” I wrote in July 2010.

The kids-only neighborhood ballgame is all but dead today, a casualty of irrational fears of abduction, alarmist TV news and the expansion of a child welfare bureaucracy that makes any parent who lets an 8-year-old ride a bike alone a criminal suspect.

Club teams and personal coaches offer a lot more than a small chance of a college sports scholarship. They are a refuge of structure, safety and supervision. They keep kids out of trouble — while also keeping them from discovering some things on their own.

There are plenty of club teams that do a tremendous job teaching kids a sport. There are countless wonderful coaches, in this valley and everywhere else, who provide lessons that go far beyond the sport they coach. Obviously, there are lots of kids who truly enjoy the sport they play all the time. I’m sure some of their teammates are as important to them as my neighborhood friends were to me, and that they’ll cherish many memories of team travel and tournaments. And plenty of parents have their hearts and heads in the right place.

But it sure seems like the youth sports scene is tilting farther and farther out of balance, between the pushy parents with blinders on and the club coaches who demand that their athletes have no life and no other commitments outside the team.

There are voices of reason, even in today’s parenting culture. The quote from last weekend’s Review-Journal feature that made me want to stand up and cheer came from UNLV baseball coach Tim Chambers, who said there’s “too much of a push” for baseball players to participate in tournaments and camps advertised as crucial to college recruiting.

“In a lot of cases, people spend a lot of money to send kids to these showcases and clinics for nothing,” he said.

“You find a lot of times that baseball players who were also football players are mentally tougher. They should enjoy the high school experience and play football and basketball and wrestle,” Chambers said. “I played five sports. You’ve got to experience it.”

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is a Review-Journal editorial writer.

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