As a lifelong athlete and former cross country and track coach, Linda Flanagan understands the positive role youth sports can play in the lives of young athletes, but she also understands the perils and pitfalls.
“Youth sports are great, but they’re warped now,” said Flanagan, who is also a freelance journalist and researcher and whose acclaimed book, Take Back The Game, examines how decades of big money and high stakes have taken their toll on what was once generally viewed as simply fun, healthy recreation. Flanagan was Thayer’s guest March 3 during an athletics coffee hosted by Athletic Director Bobbi Moran. The well-attended event began with a conversation between Moran and Flanagan and ended with a spirited Q&A that tackled many of the third rails of American youth sports: the dwindling role played by town sports leagues, the emergence of sometimes expensive club teams and AAU programs, the demand for year-round training and specialization at earlier and earlier ages, the boorish behavior of some parents in the stands, and the risks to the long-term physical and mental health of children.
For Flanagan, the shift in youth sports began in the 1970s when towns saw a decrease in parks & recreation funding and the private sector began to fill the void to wild success. Over time, she said, youth sports in the United States grew to what it is now: a $19 billion dollar industry with roughly 30,000 sports complexes spread around the country.
“Youth sports are a giant industry,” she told audience members. “It’s not just you. There are all these forces at work that are trying to get you to spend your money.”
And combine that, she said, with the astronomical expense of a college education, the competition to gain admittance to “the right” college or university, and the often zero-sum game of athletic recruiting, and there really isn’t much room for fun.
“It’s just that the stakes are so high,” she said. “These are the pressures at work that make youth sports so fraught.”
Despite the weighty topic, the mood of the discussion was far from dour. Parents and guardians offered thoughtful questions, shared their own experiences, and thanked both Flangan and Moran for their candor. At one point, Moran asked for a show of hands to see how many audience members had played youth sports; the athletic director saw a sea of raised hands. She then asked for another show of hands to see how many of those same people had parents and guardians who had attended every one of those youth games; there were a handful of raised arms at most.
“We all turned out okay,” said Moran.
Both passionate about the positive effect youth sports can have on children and their families, Moran and Flanagan offered several practical suggestions. Flanagan said even top athletes should have five non-sports activities that they enjoy doing, and she urged families to push back on particularly egregious sports demands on time and training. She said a student pursuing extra training or top-notch competition is laudable so long as that’s what the student truly wants.
“Let them be the ones driving the sports bus,” said Flanagan.
Moran agreed and said the question to children should be: “What is it you want, and how can I help you to become the best version of yourself?”
Head of School Chris Fortunato P ‘26, ‘28 thanked guests and attendees before reminding audience members that they have the power to address these issues guided by honest reflection and not fear.
“We are the system,” said Fortunato. “All of us — we are the system.”