Realities to Consider Before You Push Your Son into Organized Sports


Realities to Consider Before You Push Your Son into Organized Sports

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Don’t let hype get in the way of doing right by your son

The virtues of sports and athletics are held in high esteem in our national cultural conversation. Promoting cooperation, teamwork, reliance, and perseverance are some of the ideals common to the activity, and sports can be a fun way for your son to develop social skills and physical prowess. However, in the last decade, the competitive nature of tournaments, a rise in male aggression and injuries, overzealous parental participation, and unrealistic expectations of childhood achievement complicate the notion that participation in sports is affirming.

Before deciding what’s best for your son, it’s important to examine the overall picture.

Topic: Health

With childhood obesity on the rise, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has studied the positive effects of sports in early-childhood development. From keeping weight down to developing stronger bones and muscles through puberty, regular sports activity is a bonus. However, other researchers within the AAP’s Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness and the Council on School Health also have determined that sports activities could be problematic for children when the demands of the activities exceed a child’s cognitive and physical development.

Solo Moms (and all parents) are often the worst to judge their child’s abilities because their own emotions as well as love for their child cloud judgment. Pushing a child to do more than his body can do can result in injury and/or frustration if he cannot physically keep up with his peers. You might have to face the fact that your kid might not be good at sports. Children’s sports are not a one-size-fits-all activity; and the mentality that “playing through pain” is a good way to build stamina or “they’ll catch on” might not be the best way to approach the situation, depending on the child. As pointed out in The Young Athlete: A Sports Doctor’s Complete Guide for Parents (Little, Brown and Company, 2003), “High-level competition for young kids is not a great thing.”

Beyond the possible lack of physical (and emotional) maturity, the rate of injury for children over the last few years has also been high. A 2013 USA Today article reported that 1.35 million youths have serious sports injuries each year. Although the article could not pinpoint the root causes of the injuries—whether they were the result of an accident or overuse—it said “that young athletes who played a single sport for more hours a week than years they were old—such as a 10-year-old who played 11 or more hours of soccer—were 70% more likely to experience serious overuse injuries.” However, if a child is thriving and not facing repeated physical harm, a focused sport can build endurance. Solo Mom Heather Elisabeth’s son, Nate, has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and competitive indoor rock climbing has helped Nate channel his sporadic energy. Also, because climbing is not a contact sport and doesn’t put him into consistent physical contact with other players, it complements his solitary sensibilities. It is also helping him develop and strengthen his ability to focus.

The takeaway. Although sports can be a health benefit, forcing a child to play a sport when he does not want to or is physically unable to can wreak havoc on his emotional development and lead to depression. Sure, challenge your child, but if he becomes disinterested, then follow his lead. If he becomes injured, stop.

Although sports can be a health benefit, forcing a child to play a sport when he does not want to or is physically unable to can wreak havoc on his emotional development and lead to depression. Sure, challenge your child, but if he becomes disinterested, then follow his lead. If he becomes injured, stop.

Topic: Education goals versus the dream of becoming a professional athlete

Alex Rodriguez, Michael Phelps, Colin Kaepernick, Shaquille O’Neal, Larry Bird, and Lebron James are all groundbreaking athletes raised by Solo Moms. You might have dreams of your son being the next great Olympian or sports legend, but keep in mind that, statistically, that might not pan out. In fact, according to “The Odds of Success,” a recent study by Online Casino, the best odds are for becoming a professional hockey player, with 1 in 598 of high school athletes making it to the pros, so the chances are slim. Some parents and the sports industrial complex are in the habit of using sports as a supposed vehicle for upward mobility, thereby de-emphasizing educational goals. Many athletes are not being properly educated, and, additionally, the myth of sports providing access to wealth is especially prevalent in less affluent communities.

The famous 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams follows two African American high school students who were living in Chicago public housing. William Gates and Arthur Agee dreamed of becoming professional basketball players. These young men had dedication, talent, and a unique opportunity—but it wasn’t enough. Spoiler alert: Neither of them becomes a National Basketball Association (NBA) player. The National Collegiate Athletic Association 2015 NBA draft data suggests that 1.1% of basketball players made professional teams from playing college sports. Maybe you are a Solo Mom who is trying to rationalize these statistics, hoping an athletic scholarship is in your son’s future, but be aware that only 2.9% of high school players end up playing at the college level.

I spoke to one Solo Mom (she did not want to be named in this article) whose son has played basketball since he was in elementary school. Now in high school, he continues to excel at the sport. While she hopes that he will have Lebron James’s success, she knows it’s a long shot. She finds it a challenge to be excited about his dreams yet realistic with him about what the future holds for him. Living in a neighborhood where so many young people get caught up in gang-related violence, she is glad that he keeps busy doing something he loves. However, she is concerned that if his dreams do not come to fruition—through a college scholarship or getting scouted by a professional team—he will become discouraged. To make matters worse, he is not as strong academically.

Studies show that an athlete’s background and access to resources are key to that athlete’s ability to succeed in professional sports. In the research study, “Hoop inequalities: Race, class and family structure background and the odds of playing in the National Basketball Association,” the authors wanted to debunk “the popular narrative of the African-American basketball star rising from an impoverished community to achieve success.” The authors found that for “African-Americans, a child from a low-income family has 37 percent lower odds of making the NBA than a child from a middle- or upper-income family. Poor white athletes are 75 percent less likely to become NBA players than middle-class or well-off whites. Furthermore, a black athlete from a family without two parents is 18 percent less likely to play in the NBA than a black athlete raised by two parents, while a white athlete from a non-two-parent family has 33 percent lower odds of making the pros.” After sharing those statistics with her, she is preparing herself to have a tough conversation with her son.

Which brings us back to education. A stunning article in the Atlantic, “The Case Against High School Sports,” highlights how the United States prioritizes athletics over academic achievement time and again. Schools were found to often allocate money toward sports stadiums and coaches’ salaries instead of supporting academic initiatives.

It does not get any better at the university level. In 2015, It does not get any better at the university level. In 2015, Time magazine reported how universities are embroiled in academic fraud involving student athletes, often giving them grades for classes they do not attend and thus leaving students academically bankrupt. The article discusses how the climate of sports culture creates a “pluralistic ignorance,” meaning that even when a student athlete might want to do well in school, he or she chooses instead to go along with the crowd, eliding his or her personal preference for the group norm. Sadly, reinforcing the group norm are the adults involved in these instances. They are more interested in ensuring that your child is simply eligible to play versus whether your child is getting an education. The documentary Schooled: The Price of College Sports uncovers this practice in college sports, alluding to the idea that student athletes sliding by academically begins in high school.

Can your son play a sport and succeed academically? Sure. A study of high school student-athletes by the U.S. Sports Academy concluded that they believed that participating in sports was “worth the effort but not at the expense of their academic performance.” The study notes that balance is key and is achieved by a coordinated effort among all the adults involved—coaches; teachers; and you, too, Solo Mom.

The takeaway. Dedication is an important attribute that can be developed while participating in sports, but it also can be developed through education. Your child’s learning could be at risk, so do not shortchange him by privileging sports over education.

Topic: Social development with competition and aggression

Solo Mom Sue Makkoo found sports to be extremely beneficial to her eldest son, Harry. He is a competitive mixed martial arts (MMA) athlete. MMA is a full-contact sport that combines martial arts, striking, and grappling techniques that are seen in wrestling. It is one of the most physically challenging and aggressive sports. Beyond having an outlet for his frustrations, Harry found friends with like-minded interests and plenty of male mentors. Being single, Sue wanted him to have positive male relationships to ensure healthy, psychological growth. Sue believes that a competitive sport enhances self-esteem by teaching kids how to raise the bar for themselves, even in the face of failure. Overall, she believes that participating in sports is a way for children to learn the value of healthy competition and resiliency.

Where Sue’s son had positive outcomes of competition—coping skills, fitness, and endurance—for others, the pressure of competition and the aggressiveness that comes with it can be detrimental to a child’s well-being. The study “Alcohol Use, Sexual Activity, and Perceived Risk in High School Athletes and Non-Athletes” shows that students who participated in sports reported “greater alcohol use, more sexual partners, and lower perceived risk.” The researchers refer to the “collective nature of team sports” that normalizes behavior, even when the behaviors have negative associations or outcomes. Along with this low perception of risk for their behavior, there is a disproportionate amount of violence associated with young athletes.

Research indicates that there is a correlation between young men’s participation in high school sports and their tendency to engage in fighting, excessive drinking, and violent activities in social settings. Violent activities included hazing (the initiation process that occurs when players join teams) and the attitudes and behaviors these young men develop toward women. With the news reporting the cases of two high school football players who were found guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl and filming it, and the three high school football players who were charged with raping a disabled teammate with a coat hanger, it is hard to dismiss these incidents as aberrations.

Overt aggressiveness and the “win at all costs” mindset is not just associated with youth; adults who are involved in sports also highly contribute to the problem. For example, a high school basketball coach in Oklahoma was accused of bullying a former student and forced him to play through his injuries. Also, a recent study determined that children of overly assertive parents are more susceptible to taking performance-enhancing drugs.

Now you might be wondering, Is it that horrible to push a child to “be the best?” One Solo Mom in Massachusetts, who did not want to be named in the article, has recently discovered that her oldest son has been taking steroids for the last two years in order to keep his starting place on the school’s football team. Her son has lost some of his hair and is now seeing a renal specialist because of some possible kidney damage. What complicates their story is that her ex-husband, the boy’s father, is the football team’s coach. She says, “[My son] was irritable all of the time and fighting with his younger brother. It just wasn’t like him. He said he was happy, but he was just in his room lifting weights all of the time. I don’t know. I guess he just wanted to not disappoint us. High school sports are big in our area. We focused on winning, being tough, and being better than everyone else. I thought we were motivating him. We hurt him.”

The takeaway. Where sports can be seen as a good learning experience, a place for role models, and a positive outlet for boys, unchecked sports participation and cronyism can breed disastrous behavior that can do life-changing harm.

Having your son join a sport is not simply a way to keep your child busy; it is an integral part of your child’s development. Solo Moms in this article have candidly shared how participating in sports affected their sons. You cannot just leave him to it or expect other adults to have your child’s best interests at heart. Consider the effects, and make the time to be actively involved in your son’s sporting activities on and off the court or field. The pros of positive self-esteem, physical prowess, social connections, increased focus, and academic achievement are weighted against the cons of unrealistic expectations, injuries, lack of self-esteem, negative social effects, and lack of educational attentiveness. Actively supporting your son, cheering him from the sidelines, and knowing the sports jargon will open up additional lines of communication that can be deeply beneficial to your bond with him. And when you notice that he is not enjoying it or the pressure is too great, you will be right there to aid him in choosing a different activity or get him through the rough patch.


Tanisha Christie is an interdisciplinary performing artist and filmmaker. After years of working at the nexus of arts, media, social justice, and healing, she is currently finishing her master of social work (clinical specialization) at Hunter College in New York City. A child of a Solo Mom, she loves to ride her bike to the beach.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.


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