Parents of Athletes: Stop the Insanity–It’s Time to Take Back Holidays!

Breaks from sports practice around holidays provide a rare opportunity for young athletes to recharge, rest and recover, but more importantly give families time to reconnect. Not so for many athletes participating at the club level in sports such as swimming, gymnastics, wrestling, diving, among others, where breaks are used for intense practices and training. This article outlines why it’s time to take holidays back; stop the insanity before it’s too late.

stop-sign-2It seems like just yesterday I was driving my daughter to swim practice during Christmas break—every day of Christmas break for 7 AM practices with only two days off—Christmas and New Year’s.  Practices were grueling (2 ½ hours) too according to my daughter.  She was 10 at the time, in a group of swimmers’ ages 9 through 12. The kids in the older groups swam more; some had double workouts of morning and evening practices. The club viewed breaks from school as a chance to get in intense training.  Unfortunately I, along with 99% of the parents, bought into the madness. Looking back, well over eight years ago now, I realize the insanity of it all. Swim clubs are notorious for driving the kids hard, 12 months of the year with little more than a two-week break at the end of the summer. Taking holidays during breaks was frowned upon, to the point that most kids were afraid to miss any practices.  Though our family’s experience with year-round training was exclusive to swimming, other club sports follow similar patterns e.g. gymnastics, diving, baseball, cheer leading, wrestling, among others. Most clubs state outright on their websites the training schedules take place over breaks—Christmas and summer. Some are explicit in describing the nature of the workouts, like this High School wrestling team:

“Practices during Christmas break are focused and intensive. Christmas holiday practices are not mandatory, but highly recommended to make a significant difference once season commences in January”.   — St. Mary’s Wrestling Team,  Titans Wrestling

It might as well read something like this, ‘Merry Christmas junior, you are going to practice intensely all Christmas break so you can kick butt in January. And if you even think about taking a day off, think again’.  Some teams are more subtle like this swim club, “a special schedule will be provided to members for the Christmas and New Year’s Holidays” — Malvern Swimming, PA. 

Why the Insanity?
There are really only a few reasons why there is such a phenomenon. The philosophical answer is the culture of youth sports with the emphasis on sports specialization as well as the focus on competitiveness (of which parents to some degree are responsible), creates a culture of intense pressure for clubs and coaches and thus athletes experience pressure to attend year-round practices and perform.

The practical answer comes down club revenue, and in some instances coaches’ salaries—hence it comes down to money.  Youth sports clubs are run like businesses whether for-profit or not, and the majority depend upon a 12-month revenue stream.  In some instances coaches are incentivized based upon how individual athletes, or the team performs. This is the case for some swim clubs, and there’s evidence this system exists in other youth sports, and college sports even more so (Cheer Professional, Duggan, Lopiano).

Specific to swimming, a coach can potentially earn a financial bonus (and prestige) on the backs of high-performing swimmers.  Swim clubs within USA Swimming also receive awards, Club Excellence Programs, that includes a criteria of high performing swimmers. This structure is not ideal. If we look at it one way, the child becomes similar to a commodity, like a stock, yet the performance of the stock depends upon its fitness and performance level of which coaches influence (Mullen, 2014). Ugh. Not to say that coaches are earning big bucks, most are not, but the incentives are in all the wrong places.

…And It Continues into College
This pressing, obsessive training behavior for young athletes continues into college—for kids that join a college team regardless of whether it’s a Division I, II or III team.

A good, albeit disturbing example of intense sports training over break is the swim team at UNCW (University of North Carolina Wilmington).  An excerpt from an article titled “UNCW’s holiday swim training is brutal, but necessary“:

Since the 1980s, UNCW coach David Allen has been running his teams through this gauntlet in preparation for the conference championships. 

During Christmas Training sessions, UNCW swimmers average between seven and nine miles in the water.  The team first trains from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., working mostly on endurance. After a meal and a few hours sleep, the group returns to the pool from 7:30-9:30 p.m. for power and speed training.

“As I tell the swimmers and those who’ve been with me now for a few years, during that time, I turn my sensitivity switch off. I’m a bulldog when it comes to training,” Allen said.

“I tell them, ‘We’re going to train. And, when you’re at home in preparation, you need to get yourself ready because when you come back here I don’t want any excuses. You get in the pool and you swim. And if you can’t, go home.’ That’s the approach we take.”

One  might wonder what the goal of this training is—perhaps to prepare for the Olympic Trials so swimmers might quality for the US Olympic team?  Nope. The coach’s goal is to win the coveted conference title:

 Allen notes his goal every year is to get the conference title. It’s the only meet that is guaranteed to give out a trophy – and that’s a prize he wants. (Riley, 2014)

It’s no wonder that results from a panel conducted with NCAA college athletes cited “time off during off-season” as their number one recommendation for reforming college sports (New, 2015).

Take it Back!
This behavior of intense sports practices for young athletes during breaks is none less than destructive. Not only does it rob kids of time with families, time to rest and recover but it can lead to psychological stress, injury and patterns of behaviors that undermine health and well-being.  Parents, it’s time to stop the insanity and take holiday time with your kids back!

Further Reading:


Who’s Responsible for the Good, Bad & Ugly Behavior of Sports Parents?

Who’s responsible for behavior of sports parents—the coach, the parents or the kids? No one  in their right mind would believe that kids are responsible for their parents’ behavior. Of the broad spectrum of inappropriate behavior exhibited by parents at practices and sporting events, it is the parents that are responsible for their actions. No question. Yet coaches do have some control and influence— his or her actions can shape how parents behave either as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ sports parent.

ins_sportsIllustration by: Zohar Lozar

I was motivated to write about this topic after reading the results of a survey of  youth coaches’ views on sports parents behavior. The results were disturbing (see info graphic below), coaches report that parents overemphasize winning, criticize referees (95% have seen parents yell at a referee), and often cross the boundaries between coaching and parenting. Fair enough.  But (some) coaches are part of the problem, exacerbating inappropriate sports parenting behaviors by demonstrating poor sportsmanship and stressing winning over all else. Yet approaching this from a positive angle, coaches can be part of the solution in addressing the problem of parents unseemly actions.

The survey, though somewhat limited in scope, does serve as a starting point for discussion about parent behaviors and coaches’ role.  The coach can create a positive team culture where parents know the boundaries and more importantly know how to behave.  From my experience I’m convinced that the majority of parents aren’t aware of how detrimental their behavior is, don’t know the line between supportive actions and ones that interfere with coaching, and aren’t even aware of what behaviors represent ‘good’ sports parenting. I didn’t know how to be effective as a parent of young athletes—what behaviors were helping my kids and what were not. I look back and cringe.  I did learn however, after doing considerable research (click here to view book list on sports parenting), how to be a better sports parent.  I also determined that coaches, clubs and leagues have a role in educating parents in behaviors associated with what a good sports parent is. Posting a set of rules (on a t-shirt or elsewhere) is not enough.


Posting a set of rules (on a t-shirt or elsewhere) for parents to follow is not enough.

Coaches can help by demonstrating good sportsmanship behaviors about winning and losing, treating other coaches, referees and parents with respect. Coaches are role models not only for kids but for parents. Leagues and clubs can help by providing coaches with training, support and tools in how to communicate effectively with parents, as well as by offering workshops or webinars targeted to parents on the topic of effective parenting strategies.

Establishing guidelines for behavior at games and practices is helpful, more so when emphasizing the rationale—mainly how it affects their kids. Parents will also be more reasonable when coaches are communicative with parents, outline practice strategies and expectations, training strategies (for elite athletes), provide options for parents to contact coaching staff or league administrators, as well as describe how parents can best support their kids to have a positive experience. Good communication between the coaching team and parents will set a tone for a positive team culture, minimizing behaviors that undermine the kids and the game.

The buck stops does stop with the parent on how to behave and how to provide a good sporting experience for their kid as I’ve mentioned, but when coaches, clubs and leagues approach team sports as a partnership between parents and coaches, provide education and support to parents, the odds of parents behaving goes way up.


Further Reading:

Parents Spend More Money on Youth Sports than Saving for College

iStock_000002308797XSmallHaving children is expensive; and these kids of ours—as cute as they are, require a significant amount of resources. I saw a sign in my bank the other day that said ‘Do you know it takes $241,080 to raise a child?’  Really. And that’s only up to the age of 18, which means the $241,080 doesn’t include money for college. Add another hundred thousand or so for college or university, at least. Caching ($). If you have more than one child, Caching, Caching ($$), and if more three kids [or more] like I do then it’s… a lot ($$$). Let’s just say it takes vast sums of the green stuff to raise a family.

Coincidently, on the same day that I spotted the sign I read an article reporting on a survey that found parents are putting a priority on spending for their kids’ sports [in this case hockey] rather than saving for their kids’ college education. It went on to say that many parents are dipping into their retirement savings to fund their kids’ extracurricular activities.

“Among the most surprising findings, Lewis said, was that 61 per cent of parents said they, or someone they know, borrowed money or used retirement savings to put a child through hockey or another extracurricular.”


“Fewer than half of Canadians are saving for a post-secondary education,” Lewis said, citing federal statistics that 45 per cent of households have RESPs. “It’s the contrast of those two … They’re [parents] prepared to go into debt to fund an extracurricular activity, and at the same time aren’t actually setting aside the money for their child’s post-secondary education.“  Cary Mills, Ottawa Citizen

Granted this article is from a Canadian newspaper, and features Canadian statistics [RESP’s are equivalent to 529 plans in the United States] however there are thousands of U.S. families in the same boat. I know many families that spend thousands of dollars each year on their children’s sports activities; expenses are not just high for participation but it’s the travel expenses that add up to the thousands.

College_graduate_studentsThen There’s College…
Unfortunately there are few families that have the yearly income to support the costs associated with competitive sports, and putting money aside each year for their kids’ college education. Higher education is not cheap as parents are fully aware. According to the College Board in the US, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2012–2013 school year was $29,056 at private colleges, $8,655 for state residents at public colleges, and $21,706 for out-of-state residents attending public universities. In Canada the average university tuition fees for one year are far less than in the United States, $5,581 per year [on average]. These fees are for tuition only, and when adding room and board, books, etc. the numbers are substantially more.

Is college/university worth it?  Even though there has been much discussion lately about the value of a college education, the employment wage statistics say absolutely yes.  Over a lifetime an individual with a college education [either a two-year or four-year degree] will earn considerably more than someone with only a high school education (Bureau of Labor Statistics).  For instance, students with a bachelor’s degree make 84% more over a lifetime than high school graduates.  

All this to say, that one of the best things parents can do for their children to set them up to be independent and successful adults is to ensure that they attend some form of higher education—whether it be for a vocational diploma from a two-year institution, an associate degree from a public college, or a four-year undergraduate education. Preparing our children for college requires more than finances, which I’ll address in another article, however having the financial resources and a funding plan is critical.

What About Sports Scholarships?
One argument parents put forth for spending money on youth sports, [especially club sports where a child is vested in the sport and is very good at it] is that the child has a chance of earning a sports scholarship that will pay for college. The rationale is to invest the money now in the child and get the payback later via a sports scholarship. Yes, it is possible, however the odds are not in favor of getting a full scholarship that will pay for even the majority of the costs associated with attending college. It’s a utopian dream for most. The statistics are not favorable for the average high school athlete that plays a varsity sport, even if they are at the top of their game. Only about 2 percent of high school athletes win sports scholarships every year at NCAA colleges and universities. There is an excellent article in the NYT that provides some statistics, and I’ve included a link below that outlines the number of scholarships schools [by division] are allowed to grant each year. Here is a snippet from the NYT articles:

“Excluding the glamour sports of football and basketball, the average N.C.A.A. athletic scholarship is nowhere near a full ride, amounting to $8,707. In sports like baseball or track and field, the number is routinely as low as $2,000. Even when football and basketball are included, the average is $10,409. Tuition and room and board for N.C.A.A. institutions often cost between $20,000 and $50,000 a year.” (NYT)

Raising children is expensive—yet saving for kids college education is one of the best expenditures parents can make during their kids 0 to 18 years, while spending on youth sports…not so much. Knowing the facts can help parents make good decisions about their kids well-being, and future.