Monday, February 22, 2010
Most kids who play youth sports and many of their parents have the aspiration of getting recruited by a college and even turning pro. An NCAA athletic scholarship glimmers in our dreams as the ultimate validation of all those years scraping mud out of our floor mats and putting up with hours and hours of practice. Youth sports can rapidly switch from being something fun to do into a business. Which of us, the first time Jack or Jill dribbled the ball across the field, didn't at least fleetingly think ka-ching?
So last month when a 13-year-old boy from Delaware, David Sills, made a verbal commitment with University of Southern California (USC) to play quarterback for the school beginning in 2015, parents everywhere perked up. Apparently David already stands six feet tall, has a tremendous throwing arm, and possesses a good eye for the field. It certainly got me thinking. It's too late for my kids, but I have a nine year old grandson who plays football, forced three fumbles this year and had two sacks. He's already the tallest player on his team and has played football for four years. Perhaps I should tout him as a prospect. I have game film if anyone is interested.
At first glance there's a lot wrong with this situation, but put in a larger context it is pretty normal outside of the U.S. First of all, a verbal commitment is only as good as the paper it's written on. Essentially neither party has to adhere to the commitment, and certainly USC will drop this kid faster than Warren Moon making one of his 161 fumbles if David falters in any way during the next five years. Plus David still has to meet USC's admission policies and he hasn't even started high school. So while he does all the normal growing up of a teenager - plays, gets into trouble, faces puberty, suffers injuries, and attempts to do well in school - he's also got this strange duality of promise to mess with his head. At thirteen he's won the lottery – only problem is that it doesn't pay out for sure. So while he is thrust into the spotlight and the pressure that creates for him, he really has no guarantees. Imagine the devastation to his ego if all the hype simply leads to the same outcome most youth sports participants face: cheering on the team from the bleachers.
On the flip side, around the world thousands of soccer players join professional organizations for development when they are David's age. They are commodities that are owned, sold, or traded by the clubs. They give up on a normal education and childhood in order to train daily for hours. While the American Academy of Pediatrics warns that children should participate in a wide variety of sports because "young athletes who specialize in just one sport may be denied the benefits of varied activity while facing additional demands from intense training and competition," you won't read a report like that in England, Argentina, or Ghana. Youth athletes clamor to be picked up by the clubs knowing full well that there are no assurances that they will become part of a professional team when they reach 18.
Likewise the Winter Olympics showcase athletes who committed long before age 13 to their sport. In many countries athletes are scouted and recruited when they are still of single digit age, and then they are moved to a training facility and give up a normal childhood for the good of the sport. After years of sacrifice, separation from family, limited education, and hours and hours of training, they may see it culminate in a medal, but more likely they will end up in 26th place or even have great promise disappear completely in a blown triple axel.
Nevertheless what parent hasn't secretly thought about his or her child standing on the podium, or throwing the winning touchdown pass in the Rose Bowl, or making the World Cup team? We all have to admit that given the opportunity for our children to achieve at that level, we would consider it. And naturally a youngster, inundated with the sparkling images of hero athletes, would want to grab the brass ring when offered a chance to participate in that experience. But for anyone considering such a move, one has to ask who really wants it – the child or the parents? The answer to that question makes all the difference. While the parent may finance and support the dream, the player is the one who has to get up at 5 a.m. for training, finish homework in the team bus, suffer aches and pains most of us won't feel until we're 80, and come back from injury time and time again. If it's not the player's dream, then there's no motivation to get through it all.
I'm not appalled by David Sills' decision. If David played soccer in England this story wouldn't merit more than a single line in his hometown newspaper – "Local Lad Signs with Liverpool." So we need to put away our indignation that his parents would allow this, and look instead at how this media event will affect David going forward. Whether or not he eventually plays for USC isn't really the issue. Rather it's the pressure he'll feel to live up to the promise, and failing on a national stage if he doesn't. That's a heavy load for anyone, but even heavier for a 13 year old. Hopefully his parents will understand that he has a long journey ahead of him and help him navigate the ups and downs and possible curtailment of that journey. If they don't consider anything less than playing for USC a failure, if they accept that David may change his mind, if they can help him through a career-ending injury, and if they can put achieving the goal in proper perspective, then he'll probably come out of this just fine.
Before we parents get jealous that our child isn't being pursued in middle school we need to remember that elite athletics come with a very heavy price. Psychologically, physically, and socially athletes end up sacrificing most of what we would call a normal childhood with absolutely no assurance of succeeding. That road isn't for the faint of heart or most kids. While we revere athletic prowess to the point of sainthood, we should remember that someone has to build the stadiums they play in, run the cameras that record their achievements, design their uniforms, engineer their transportation, heal their injuries, and write the articles making them heroes or goats. Those careers don't get the same adulation, but they come with a steady pay check, pride in a job well done, and free time to enjoy life. We all just want our children to be happy, and happiness comes in many forms.