Author Talks: It’s time to make youth sports about kids again

Journalist and former cross-country coach Linda Flanagan pulls back the curtain on K-12 sports in America, revealing an intense, commercialized system that excludes low-income players.

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Molly Liebergall chats with Linda Flanagan, a journalist and former cross-country coach, about her new book, Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania Are Ruining Kids’ Sports—And Why It Matters (Penguin Random House, August 2022). K–12 sports in America have transformed from a fun, active, and accessible pastime into a high-stakes, expensive competition, Flanagan says—but it didn’t used to be this way. An edited version of the conversation follows.

What went wrong with organized K–12 sports in America, and when?

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It all started in roughly the 1970s. We had a terrible recession, high inflation, and as a result, public funding for parks and community programs—including community sports—declined. When that happened, private teams and leagues started to fill the void left by community programs. At the same, Title IX hugely accelerated the number of girls playing sports, so there was a greater demand as well.

The perspective of parents and what they owed their kids also started to shift around the ’70s, when American culture moved away from any collective sense of responsibility around rearing kids and toward it being almost entirely the family’s responsibility. As a result, parents felt they needed to step up and do everything possible to give their kids every advantage; it’s all defined by economic anxiety and concern about the future.

All of these forces converged, along with the greater stakes of college athletics—we all know about college admissions and how crazy that can be—to turn youth sports from primarily community-based, low cost, local, and cheap, into a feast-or-famine situation, where low-income areas have very little while middle-to-upper-income areas have quality programs that are privatized and serious.

How does America’s culture of youth sports compare with other countries?

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Youth sports in America differ dramatically from youth sports in other parts of the world. In China—and we’ve seen this in the Olympics—it’s a top-down, federal selection of the top athletes. They’re plucked out and cultivated—pulled from their families and developed. Obviously, this is very different from how we do it here.

In many developing countries, there aren’t any organized youth sports to speak of that are state-run or even private—many youth sports are run by NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], which use it to almost bring up the population. In Europe, youth sports are not school-based, they’re community-based. While schools have PE or physical education, they don’t have school teams, so sports are community-based, local, and cheap. The emphasis is on developing kids’ agility and having fun, and the teams are smaller.

They have a culture that’s geared toward children, their development, and their enjoyment of sports, rather than our system, which is based around adults, adult supervision, seriousness, and competition. We have age-group champions for second graders; they certainly don’t have any of that in Norway or most of Europe.

Norway is the model we all hold up as the ideal to follow because they have incredible participation rates among kids: 93 percent of kids play sports. They have enormous medal counts at the Olympics, too.[Norway has] a culture that’s geared toward children, their development, and their enjoyment of sports, rather than our system, which is based around adults, adult supervision, seriousness, and competition. We have age-group champions for second graders; they certainly don’t have any of that in Norway or most of Europe.

How has the commercialization of youth sports affected existing social and economic inequalities?

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The bottom line is that household income is the driving factor in who plays and who doesn’t play. Data is very hard to come by in youth sports because there’s no governmental body that collects it, so the Aspen Institute stepped in. They’ve studied the participation rates on teams and activity levels of children and matched it with income.

They’re directly correlated: in families where household income is less than $25,000, children are three times as likely to be inactive as children in households making over $100,000. Those same low-income families’ children are half as likely to be on a team; the money alone is an enormous barrier to entry for low-income families.

A good chunk of parents spend 20 hours per week on their children’s sport, which is simply impossible for low-income families. If you’re juggling jobs, you can’t drive hither and yon on weekends and after school, especially if you have more kids. This is a massive barrier to entry, and as a result, sports have become entirely linked to class.

There’s also the time investment that parents are expected or required to make if their kids are going to join these teams. A good chunk of parents spend 20 hours per week on their children’s sport, which is simply impossible for low-income families. If you’re juggling jobs, you can’t drive hither and yon on weekends and after school, especially if you have more kids. This is a massive barrier to entry, and as a result, sports have become entirely linked to class.

The other factor here is that low-income schools don’t have sports options in the way middle- and upper-income schools do. At least a third of the lowest-income schools have no school sports at all. It’s unavoidable—the link between physical activity and income. Obesity rates are higher among low-income kids and families, and most obese children will remain obese as adults. During the pandemic, the obesity rate went up to 22 percent of kids between the ages of two and 19, which is mind-boggling.

How has the pandemic impacted both organized youth sports and neighborhood free play?

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The good news about the pandemic is that it had the effect of pushing kids outside. It returned them to the roots of playing basketball outside and going for runs or rides—if you live in the kind of community where that’s possible. I certainly saw it where I live. Bike sales went way up—you couldn’t get a bike around here—so that was the good news.

The bad news, as far as sports participation goes, was that both the school teams and the travel teams shut down, at least for a while. Of course, it depended on the state: “blue” states tended to shut down for longer. More recently, there’s been a stalling of free play—biking, individual-type sports, or other things you can do outside—and a return to travel and school teams.

There has also been a return to investing in travel teams: more than half of parents are now spending and devoting the same or more time to their kids’ sports as they were before the pandemic, but this, again, is class-based. Hispanic and Black families are spending less money and devoting less time to youth sports since the pandemic largely stopped impacting sports participation. We’re seeing a return to what we had before the pandemic, with class-based differences being hardened or worsened. As long as the incentives remain as they are, I don’t see that changing.

Between extra trainings, off-season teams, top-of-the-line gear, and more, how can parents tune out commercialization and tune in to what their child wants?

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I think most parents—at least older parents—would say that one of the hardest things about having kids is keeping perspective. To keep perspective, start by asking yourself some questions to find out whether you have in fact lost it.

If you go to a party, how long does it take you to bring up the fact that your child plays sports? If it’s less than five minutes, that’s probably not great. Would it be devastating to you if your child quit? That’s not great either. It probably means that it’s taken on greater importance to you than it should have.

If you go to a party, how long does it take you to bring up the fact that your child plays sports? If it’s less than five minutes, that’s probably not great. Would it be devastating to you if your child quit? That’s not great either. It probably means that it’s taken on greater importance to you than it should have.

To keep perspective, if you agree you’ve lost it, there are various tricks you can use. I encourage you to ask for guidance from older people who have been through this—it’s very hard to know what’s right when you’re in the thick of it. Practice distancing: pretend you’re a fly on the wall and observe the situation as if you were an outsider. That might help you see if you’re too enmeshed.

Another trick is to practice advising a friend. What would you tell a friend who was in this situation? If they were to say, “Should I miss my mother’s 80th birthday in order to take Sally to the lacrosse game on Sunday?” How would you advise the friend?

Also, go forward in time and say, “How will this look in six months? How will this look in six years, or 20 years? How will I view this problem then?” Again, it is incredibly hard to step back and see what’s important when you’re in the thick of it. One friend, whose three kids were all in sports, said to me, “This town conspires to make you lose perspective.” If you understand that going in, it might be a little easier to maintain some distance when you’re in the thick of it.

Why should parents skip some of their children’s games?

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It’s important for parents to skip games every now and then, for two reasons. One is it helps parents carve out our own activities and interests so that we’re not completely wrapped up in our kids’ pursuits. It’s also good for kids if you’re not there at every game; it’s not healthy for children to think that they have to have their parents in the stands or watching in order to compete.

Kids’ sports are meant to be for kids. If they can’t play when you’re not there, there’s something unhealthy going on, and I think most parents can probably recognize that. I understand the desire to watch because it’s fun when your child is good, it’s exciting, and your friends are there. It all feels like fun, but over the long term it’s healthier to put a little distance between you and your child’s sport—not only for yourself, but for your child.

It’s not healthy for children to think that they have to have their parents in the stands or watching in order to compete. Kids’ sports are meant to be for kids. If they can’t play when you’re not there, there’s something unhealthy going on, and I think most parents can probably recognize that.

What would you say to a parent who is panicking because their child wants to quit the sport that they have played for years?

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I appreciate the challenge it must be for parents whose kids want to quit, especially if they’ve invested hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars in their kids’ sports. I appreciate that that must be difficult because it feels like a sunk cost at that point, but kids’ sports are for kids, and they need to be the ones making these decisions because they’re the ones playing.

The more parents spend on their kids’ sports, the less kids like them, and the less they feel an intrinsic desire to play. If they want to quit, it could very well be because they either never liked the sport in the first place and were kind of bamboozled into it or because they’ve played for so long and have specialized for so many years that they’re sick to death of it, in which case I’d just get out of their way, because it’s going to happen eventually.

The more parents spend on their kids’ sports, the less kids like them, and the less they feel an intrinsic desire to play.

At some point, kids who have been playing sports for too long are going to have to stop playing. If they want to quit when they’re in high school, I would get out of the way and invite them to try other activities. There’s more to life than sports.

What can managers and business leaders learn from good coaches?

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A good coach is a good manager; a good manager is a good coach. The main qualities to demonstrate are strength and warmth. Strength shows players that you know what you’re doing, that you’re competent, and that you’re the right person to follow. Warmth shows that you care about them. If kids or employees feel that you don’t care about them, they’re going to be less apt to care about you or their job. That is a basic principle.

With coaching, as with being an employer or manager, you have to model what you want to see among your staff. If you come in late every day and then get angry when people turn up 15 minutes after they’re supposed to arrive, that sends a terrible message.

A good coach is a good manager; a good manager is a good coach. The main qualities to demonstrate are strength and warmth. Strength shows players that you know what you’re doing, that you’re competent, and that you’re the right person to follow. Warmth shows that you care about them.

As a coach, I couldn’t possibly be indifferent to the sport and expect my girls to care about it. You have to care about it yourself. You also have to be scrupulously fair, especially with the top performers, because they’re the ones for whom—certainly in athletics—it’s easy for coaches to look the other way if they violate a rule. There’s nothing more undermining of team unity than that kind of uneven application of the rules.

I also think we need to meet them where they are. Sometimes coaches get teams that aren’t full of naturally talented kids—they’re beginners and not the star team you might’ve hoped for. You have to meet them where they are, and likewise with managers. Maybe this wasn’t the hire you wanted; maybe you inherited these employees; you have to meet them where they are and do the best you can with who you have, not who you wish you had.

Finally, I think it’s very tempting as a coach to celebrate the successes of the most talented people—the one who scored the goal or ran the fastest. Likewise in business, it’s tempting to celebrate the most successful performers, but if you want to have a team that works together—that has a common goal and purpose and is united—you have to recognize everyone’s contribution, including the slowest kid on the team in running, or the one who’s the reluctant scorer. Everyone needs to be recognized for their contribution and celebrated.

What surprised you most in your research or writing process?

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There’s a lot that surprised me. One thing is the unanimity among researchers, especially in the medical community, about how terrible all of this is for kids. My interest in the subject came from my own hunch about what was happening, and then when I explored it and talked to doctors and researchers, I found that it’s pretty unanimous: the way we’re running youth sports is bad for kids and not great for families.

Specialization may result in some kind of honey pot in college down the road, but in the short term, and even for kids’ long-term health, it is not great. I was very surprised at the unanimity among the medical community. I was also surprised by the results of one study, which looked at Division I athletes—the most vaunted athletes in college.

Specialization may result in some kind of honey pot in college down the road, but in the short term, and even for kids’ long-term health, it is not great. I was very surprised at the unanimity among the medical community.

The research team found that later in life, those players were less active, had worse moods, worse physical functioning, and less social satisfaction than their contemporaries in college who hadn’t played a varsity sport. It really gave me pause. What is this about college sports? Why are we celebrating them so much when it’s not necessarily great for those young people down the road when they’re adults? Those were just two things that surprised me, but there were plenty of surprises along the way.

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Linda Flanagan on how sports in America have become a high-stakes, expensive competition

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