These days, middle-class families run ragged by their kids’ competitive-sports schedules are achingly common across America: Weekends are devoured by tournaments and practice, family dinners replaced by mandatory strength-training sessions, and vacations forever postponed. During my five years of researching and writing about youth sports for my book Take Back the Game, I heard so many variations of these stories, and the burden on burned-out teenagers is clear. Less obvious is the effect of relentless overtraining on the rest of the household. In the ever-earlier scramble to develop their kids’ athletic skills, mothers and fathers frequently find themselves giving up the integrity of the family as a whole.
In my observation, this is most common among competitive club sports, which for many kids begin during elementary school and extend through high school. For all the evidence that shows how exercise and sports benefit children, comparatively little research exists on the costs of competitive youth sports participation to the unpaid support network that enables it—specifically, the young athletes’ families. What of the marriages, siblings, and extended relatives who are pulled in or dragged along or left out when one child takes up soccer or tennis with gusto, and the parents go all in? Besides so much else that’s wrong with contemporary elite youth sports—the prohibitive cost, erosion of fun, epidemic of injuries—disrupted families should be added to the list.
For parents, the financial costs alone are steep—even when their kids aren’t high-level athletes. According to a 2019 study conducted by the Aspen Institute think tank and Utah State University of 1,032 adults with kids who played sports at the recreational, high-school, or club level, families spend an average of $693 annually for each sport a child plays. Though the high price squeezes many low-income kids out entirely, in households earning less than $50,000, parents still pay an average of $475 annually per child per sport. And raising a highly promising child athlete can require major financial trade-offs. A Harris Poll survey on behalf of TD Ameritrade queried 1,001 adults who had at least one child playing for a club or an “elite competitive” nonschool team and found that 19 percent had taken a second job or worked overtime, or would be willing to, in order to fund their kid’s sports. In this survey, parents also reported spending an average of 12 hours each week on their child’s athletic activities. In my research, I’ve found that the biggest drain on parents’ time comes from attending sports events. One mother told me that she and her husband had eliminated what she called “meaningful family vacations” to afford her three daughters’ soccer and lacrosse expenses.
One of the few academic studies exploring how youth sports affect marriages discovered a significant impact on quality partner communication. Of the seven couples interviewed, all of whom had been married for at least 10 years, some reported that their child’s participation on an elite team had turned family life into an endless discussion about logistics. “Our conversations go something like, ‘What are you doing? Where are you going? When are you going to be here?’ You know, typical kind of coordination-type stuff,” one mother explained. “Sometimes we don’t talk. He’s at the field picking them up at 10:00 p.m. There are some weeks it feels they have practice after school five days a week, and he is either in the car or at the field,” another said about her husband.
The sports psychologist Jim Taylor, who has been counseling athletes and their families for more than 35 years, told me that pressure on parents comes up constantly in his practice. Parents clash over spending and worry about the lack of attention they devote to each other and to their other children. Family bonds can become even more frayed when a parent relocates with one child to advance their athletic prospects, leaving the rest of the family behind. This happens most in solo sports such as ski racing, figure skating, and gymnastics, Taylor said, where some parents believe that the child needs to leave home to get top coaching and elite competition.
Then there are brothers and sisters, who often suffer from what Taylor calls “neglected-sibling syndrome,” when all the family’s attention is focused on the athletic child. For most families, the cultivation of sports means less resources for other activities or children. Jordan Blazo, a sports-psychology professor at Louisiana Tech University, has studied the younger siblings of serious athletes—in his research, Division I collegiate players who had earned an athletic scholarship. Some younger children delighted in their sibling’s success and found the family focus on athletics “an agent of cohesion”; the older sibling’s distant games allowed the family to travel together to new places. Others resented having to traipse around in their elder’s shadow, bristled at being compared frequently with the family star, and felt overlooked by the parents, all of which damaged their relationship with the older sibling. “It kind of ate me up because of all the attention that she would get,” one younger sibling in the study said.
In her landmark study of 12 families with varied socioeconomic backgrounds, Annette Lareau, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, found that middle-class children who were ferried from activity to activity—including but not limited to sports—had uneasier relationships with their brothers and sisters than the kids living less structured lives. Children on the receiving end of “concerted cultivation,” as Lareau dubbed this frenzied approach to child-rearing, seemed to be more aggressive with their siblings, sometimes making casual references to “hating” a brother or sister. She speculated that this stemmed from siblings spending so much time in activities and having limited interactions with family.
Blazo—himself a former high-school soccer player and the second son in a family of five boys—reminded me that sibling relationships move through cycles, and that conflict in adolescence doesn’t lock in a lifetime of estrangement. In some households, an athletic brother or sister might be an encouraging role model, a steady playmate, a reliable confidant. But Blazo cautions mothers and fathers to consider how the child who doesn’t play sports will perceive the value their parents attach to athletics. Even the most conscientious parent will be up against a culture that exalts athletic achievement. When professional players are rewarded with riches and attention, about half a million young adults compete in college, and children are frequently nudged into sports as soon as they can walk, convincing kids that it’s okay to bail on soccer or skip the baseball tryout can be a tough sell.
In my reporting, I’ve often asked parents caught up in competitive youth sports if they’d ever considered withdrawing their kids from the circuit. Some told me they feel like they have no choice: Their child loves it, or it will help them get into a better college. Families might be strung out and split up, they seemed to be saying, but no matter. In elite sports families, individual athletic triumphs still seem to justify every household sacrifice.