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The high cost of the youth sports arms race

Middle school cross-country runners take off in a group training session. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Middle school cross-country runners take off in a group training session. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Youth sports are supposed to be about fun and team spirit.

But now, kids are training year-round and joining expensive travel leagues earlier.

It’s costing families, and kids too.

Today, On Point: The high cost of the youth sports arms race.


Jennifer Howell, former soccer player.

Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program. Founder of Project Play. Author of “Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children.”

Also Featured

Oluwatoyosi Owoeye, director of the Translational Sports Injury Prevention Lab at St. Louis University.

Linda Flanagan, author of “Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania are ruining Kids’ Sports—and Why It Matters.”


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Today we’re going to talk about youth sports. So let’s start with a former youth and a continuing athlete. Her name is Jennifer Howell, and she joins us from Denver, Colorado. Jennifer, welcome to On Point.

JENNIFER HOWELL: Hi, thank you for having me, Meghna.

CHAKRABARTI: I hope you didn’t mind that I called you a former youth.

HOWELL: I’d like to think I have a little bit of youth left.

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) So let’s say definitely still youthful. That’s what I’m going to put. So tell me, you have played sports for a long time. What’s, what was the, the earliest you got involved in athletics?

HOWELL: Yeah. So I think I was five or so, my parents put me in just like your community recreational soccer league.

So I remember doing that for a little bit. I’m sure parents now are thinking of their kids with the soccer ball as high as their knees and not a lot going on. And then a couple years after that, around 2000, I think like my parents were talking to other parents and one of them suggested “Hey, like Jennifer’s really good.

You should consider putting her in a club sport, the local club team.” And they travel, they do tournaments. And is it essentially the first step onto maybe playing soccer in college or continuing on to like national team, Olympics all that fun stuff.

CHAKRABARTI: Wow. Okay. And it sounds like you were about maybe eight or nine at the time.

HOWELL: Yeah. Yep.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, you know what’s interesting? First of all, when you said you got involved at age four or five at a rec league, I used to referee for the young kids at AYSO. And it’s a delightful time to watch children play, right? Because the balls are as high as their knees and everybody crowds around the ball and it’s like a school of fish moving across the field.

You can’t really see the soccer ball. (LAUGHS)

HOWELL: Yep. yep.

CHAKRABARTI: So it’s just wonderful. It’s actually quite both intense in a kid version and really joyful. So how, at that age, when you first got started and a couple of years in, how did you feel as a six- or seven-year-old playing?

HOWELL: I think I liked it. That was only a couple of years ago for me, definitely.

So I do remember having fun and especially you have all your fun little pizza parties and everything after, I think where it started to shift just a little bit was, we were trying to figure out who the goalkeeper of the team is going to be. And the story that I was told several times was I took a ball to the face and didn’t cry, and everyone was like, “Yes.



HOWELL: That is the goalkeeper.

CHAKRABARTI: The wall is what we used to call our keeper, the wall. But the keeper is also a real a leader on the team, right? Because she’s giving a lot of directions for how, where, especially the defensive line should stand and move, et cetera, was, so I’m presuming you were made the keeper of your team, and did you enjoy that role as well?

HOWELL: I enjoyed the technical aspects. The leadership portion was the most challenging for me, because I at some point, I was an extroverted child and then I definitely became a lot more introverted. So it was very difficult for me to be yelling and especially as age hit that middle school timeframe, where emotions are shifting at the drop of a pen.

And yeah, so then, you’re in a game and then it’s, “Oh I don’t like the way she yelled at me.” So it definitely was a bit dicey in terms of maintaining friendships off the field, on the fields. Especially if sometimes you’re a little bit spiteful where she didn’t pass me the ball, I’m not going to pass her the ball.

So a lot of factors at play.

CHAKRABARTI: But I’m presuming that you ended up, you did join the travel team.

HOWELL: Yes. Yep. And so I did that for, let’s see, I think around 2002, I’m not quite sure what year I quit, but I would have been around 2008, maybe. Somewhere in there. So yeah, I was with the same team for quite a while.

And then at some point it folded and I’m not quite sure what the details were. And so then we started traveling to an adjacent city that was about an hour away. And then not sure why we switched again, but we ended up driving to Tallahassee, which was about an hour and a half away to two hours for a one-way trip for a practice.

CHAKRABARTI: Wow. Okay. So then you’re talking about four hours out of your day just in transportation.

HOWELL: Yep. Yep. And in the on season, that was about twice a week. So during high school I was in the IB program and was taking AP electives, on track to become valedictorian and was doing four-hour, round trip, twice a week for practice. And that didn’t include tournaments on the weekends.

So that was my entire life was school practice, homework tournaments, and that was it.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise to you, Jennifer, that some people are hearing this saying, good for her. She was a really focused, accomplished, talented, young woman whose high school career would be the envy of a lot of other kids.

I get it. It’s a huge time commitment. But like I said, in just hearing, like, the resume version of what you experienced, it’s really impressive. But what was going on with you then during that time? Because I also understand you were like attending college sports camps. Were you even in the pre recruitment processes with colleges which all sounds good too, but what was happening with you internally during this time?

HOWELL: Oh, yeah. Internal Jennifer was not having a good time. Just the stress from having to keep up with homework, studying for tests, making sure the GPA wasn’t slipping. But also, making sure that I was making that resume as nice as possible for college and the way kind of everybody frames it as a, “Oh if you play for D1, you don’t have to pay for college.”

You’re on a full ride. Don’t have to worry about those pesky student loans. And so it became very pressured. It was a very difficult situation. And it got to the point where I was developing a lot of anxiety, became very depressed. And so I’d say from the time that I was about, Ooh, maybe 13 or 14.

I learned what panic attacks were. Maybe for an upcoming tournament the night before, might not be able to sleep. If I made mistakes during the game, it would send me spiraling mentally because then it became a, “What if there is a college recruiter at this game?”

I made a mistake. I’m the goalkeeper. Mistakes are pretty obvious. The casual viewer can pick it up, ’cause the goalkeeper makes a mistake. It’s almost an automatic goal.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. I had to get past 10 other people first though. I just want to say.

HOWELL: It did, yes. And that was a very common. It’s, oh, it did have to get passed to other people.

And it’s yes, but also yeah, it’s really hard not to take that, a goal, personally. And it’s a big thing. The words were there, almost as a platitude, but it never was like, Hey, we’re going to really dig into this and make sure that you’re actually doing okay.

And so it just wasn’t a really good time. I was dreading practices. I was dreading tournaments, games. Just a lot of anxiety in my life at that point. And I didn’t know how to get out of it, because that was all I knew.

CHAKRABARTI: It was your whole identity.

HOWELL: Yeah, that, that was it. If you asked anybody who knew me it was just like, Oh yeah, Jennifer, she does soccer.

There was nothing really else going on. Not, Oh, she loves Harry Potter or anything like that. It was just, yes, soccer. And that is it.

CHAKRABARTI: I understand though, that did stop playing before you graduated from high school. Is that right?

HOWELL: Yes. Yeah. So I reached a point, it was one of those weeks, right?

I think it was just a lot going on academically. And then we’re on the way back from practice, in the dark, like trying to do homework by flashlight, because this was before you could just have a laptop and do all of your homework on your laptop. And I just remember thinking like, I’m really not happy.

At this point in my life, there’s not really anything redeeming to me. And just in the car ride home, I said I don’t want to do this anymore. And my mom did not take that well. And at that point, that was also her entire identity. Was like, I am the soccer mom, there’s absolutely nothing else.

And she ended up calling all the relative people or the pertinent people that needed to know. So like my coaches, my dad and just was like, Oh Jennifer decided to do a 180 and ruin her life. So it was a very long car ride home.

CHAKRABARTI: You were hearing all these phone calls.

HOWELL: Oh yeah. Yeah. I was in the car at the same time.

CHAKRABARTI: How did it change your relationship with your mother over the next year?

HOWELL: So she didn’t talk to me for about a month. Sorry.


HOWELL: And we basically never talked about it again. There wasn’t anything like, “Why do you want to do it? Or, “Is there a reason?” It was just like an immediate, like you have ruined your life and therefore, thereby ruined mine. And so it just, yeah.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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