Youth Sports Participation and Parental Impact


Written by: Where Parents Talk Staff

Published: Aug 26, 2023

by Katherine Johnson Martinko

“Parent the child you have, not the one you wish you had.”

Kirsten Jones offers these wise words to parents. The performance coach, former Division 1 college athlete, author, and mother of three understands the benefits of getting kids involved in organized sports, but also realizes how easily it can devolve into an unhealthy obsession. She is on a mission to help parents establish healthy boundaries around sports and not lose sight of other important childhood lessons and experiences.

Click for video transcription

Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a performance coach, a motivational speaker and a writer Kiersten Jones is also a former executive in the sporting goods industry, and a high level athlete and author and a mother of three. Her first book is called Raising empowered athletes. It’s slated to be published in the summer of 2023. Kiersten joins us today from Los Angeles, California. Thank you so much for being here.
Thank you for having me. Lianne. I’m excited to be here. 

And you know, it’s such a timely, relevant and important topic that we’re going to get into today. And that is really about youth sports. So when you look at the current landscape, Kirsten, what would you describe as your general assessment of the current youth sports landscape in North America?
You know, it’s evolved so much, really, in our lifetimes. I’m 53. And in the 70s, and 80s, it was a totally different landscape. It was everybody played multiple sports, you played whatever was in season, your parents came to the games, if they could, you know, maybe a dad would help out with a sport. But there was never been speak personally, for myself ever any expectation that I would play in college that I would play beyond high school. And what is shifted is we really see I’ve seen kind of three major things happen. One in the 70s, a lot more women went back to work. So in the 50s and 60s, I think less than 25% of women were in the workforce. When we got to the 70s. All of a sudden women started working so you had both parents working? And what does that leave you with some latchkey kids with nothing to do. So we need activities for the kids to do. Second, you have in the early late 70s, early 80s, you have no child left behind, which was this huge. Oh, we’re getting behind academically as well. So this panic set in that our kids aren’t as smart, or our parents don’t have as much time to spend with us. And then third, in 1981, John Walsh’s son was abducted and out of a mall in Florida. And it made national news and almost 40 million people watched a show talking about this culture where people you know, the kids are no longer safe. So you combine all three of those with, again, in the early 80s This thing, you know, ESPN came online. So now you can watch sports 24/7 round the clock. And at that time, people like Tiger Woods and the Serena Sister, you know, Serena and Venus Williams are starting to show up on the scene and they’re being seen on the television. So you’ve got this kind of perfect storm of all of those things happening at the same time, people have a little bit more money to spend because they’re both working, and they need somewhere safe for their kids to be. So it’s things start cropping up like clubs, sports, like personal training, like parents investing in them getting involved in the coaching so that they can help charter their kids on their path. And the 10,000 hour rule which you, you know, you heard about in the 70s and 80s. With Tiger Woods spending, if I just invest 10,000 hours my to like kick child to could be a prodigy. So you have these parents that are like, Oh, well, if that’s what it takes, we can be all in on that. And of course, it’s a very slow drip the frogs but in the pot for now 30 years, and it didn’t happen overnight. But what you’re seeing now with a generation of kids that we’re raising is, there’s an expectation at 567 and eight, that you’re not, you’re not playing rec, if you’re serious about this, you got to play club. And that’s kind of how it’s taken off.
You know, it’s such a fascinating backdrop and sort of description that you provided there with all of the different stages of the last 30 years, I think it really provides such important context to this discussion. Because we just didn’t get here by accident. And so when you look at where we are today, what would you say are some of the key challenges in the youth sports industry, as we see it?
Well, as everybody’s talking about all the time is social media. Right? So now that these kids are raised in a generation where everything is in front of them on a phone, and every one of their heroes is you know, you can go and you know, stock your favorite athlete or musician or whoever. So they’re seeing it and if they’re doing it, then I want to do it. So this, you know, again, I call it the professionalization of youth sports because actually I coach little nine and 10 year old girls for fun volleyball, and I was at a tournament with a couple of them, you know, doing this tournament a couple of weeks ago, and a couple of girls were dancing around as 10 year olds do in between matches. And I heard one of the girls say to the girl said mixer Oh, I can’t do that. And she said Why? It’s just well, if I do that, then the coaches won’t recruit me. At 10 years old, they’re even thinking about what how this might impact me down the road. Obviously, she didn’t come up with that on her own. I’m guessing a parent said, you know, if you’re serious about volleyball, you’ve got to be serious all the time. But it’s trickling down from where I don’t think anybody spent their childhood worrying about whether they were going to be a pro baseball, basketball softball player back then. Now, I think it’s, it’s come down so far down into the, you know, this little biosphere of everybody’s focused on that. In grade school, much less, you know, now making a middle school or high school team has become so competitive, that it’s not just like, Oh, I’m gonna play through high school, it’s like, I hope I can make my high school team.
Well, and then from there, you’ve got, you know, getting into university on an athletic scholarship, or college, etc, etc. So you brought it up there, parental pressure, how much of a factor is that in the current youth sports, sort of challenges that you see?
It’s huge. And that’s what my book that’s coming out in August is all about, which is, I don’t think anybody sets out to Oh, I’m gonna really screw up my kid, right? We are all doing the best we can with what we have from where we are. But there’s a lot of parents who didn’t play themselves. So they don’t know, you know, where the sidelines are, they don’t know what the rules are, they don’t know how to navigate this whole experience. So they’re trying to do the best and you’re looking around and seeing, you know, Sally’s doing that. And Johnny’s doing that we better we better, you know, jump in and help them too. So it’s, it’s getting, you know, kind of lost parenting, where they’re just trying to do whatever is going on around them, instead of listening not only to their, most importantly, to their child, but also to themselves, like, what are our family values? What’s important to us? Why? Why would we have them do that? I know, we want to get into that. But it’s all about, again, starting with your own family values. And what it is you think your children you want your children to get out of sports.
It is so hard, though, for many parents who will be watching and listening to this interview, to not get sucked into that whole world. And to be sort of on the outside and doing something different than everybody else in terms of the team and other parents are doing. So how does one guard against that? What can you suggest in terms of tips or strategies for parents to not get sucked in?
So I say I have the three F’s with really an abstract around a fourth, which when our kids are young, they should try everything. And I’m saying sixth seventh, eighth all the way through really through your freshman year of high school, ideally, whichever talking 1314 15 Ideally, they should be in the school play and in the band and, you know, trying soccer finding out am I a team sports kid, am I an individual sports kid? My rules are if you sign up for the season, you finish it, unless there’s something catastrophic. Obviously, if there’s, you know, thing that’s going on, that’s not appropriate, then you can leave but otherwise, a kid signs up for, you know, Bowling for the season, and halfway through the like, yeah, not in a bullet. That’s okay, we’re just going to finish the season. And then we can figure out what’s next. But friends, you’re doing it for socialization, they’re learning how to be a part of a team. They’re learning how to lose how to win, how to support each other, how to play different roles. So friends fun. This is supposed to be fun. This is supposed to be their childhood is supposed to be, you know, a good time. I have a little story in the book about nine year old boys playing baseball, and they played and you know, the one team’s got so many runs that they stopped keeping score. And the coach just said, Okay, we’re just going to play one more inning. And the little nine year old comes up to me says, Oh, can we have fun now? You know, like, wow, have we gotten so far from this being fun? So friends, fun and fundamentals, the most important thing that they should be getting out of it again, in grade school, middle school is, you know, if I want to learn how to play this sport, what do I need to know what are the skills I need? I don’t need to be able to, you know, run five different plays in basketball, I need to know that I’m supposed to space out I need to know how to dribble, I know how to catch. I didn’t know how to shoot, like the basics. And then my fourth F really is FOMO which is fear of missing out and that’s where the parenting comes in. Which is well I see so and so’s doing that. We’ve got to do that. And this No you don’t. You need to listen to what is important. Again, do you want to go on the you know, camping trip for a month in June. So you know, you really don’t have time to do travel soccer at age nine and 10 If that’s your family’s focus, that’s what they should be doing. You shouldn’t give it all up. You know, there is a certain element of your kid you know, and you have three children like my they’re all wired differently. There’s gonna be one kid that you know that’s all they’re gonna focus on and the same parents different but different kid is gonna say You might even be a better athlete, but not that interested. You know, so you got to parent the child you have not the one you wish you had. And it’s easy to sit on the sidelines and see the naturally athletic, large, you know, gifted, you know, early, you know, grow grew early and say, Gosh, I wish I had that kid. But if that’s not your kid, that’s okay. Like, embrace the one you have. And then then you’re our job is really to be the oh, well think about this. What you know, have you tried out for the drama t, you know, drama? Have you done that debate? Have you, maybe you need to be in rock climbing, maybe you need to try surfing, there might be things that aren’t necessarily and sometimes the kids are, are looking for things we don’t know anything about, for exactly that reason. You know, I just had a kid, a guy on my podcast, he played at Stanford volleyball, and Pepperdine, and his dad was a football coach, his dad said you can do football or basketball. And finally my freshman year, he came to me and he said, I don’t like either of these. And my older sister plays volleyball. And he goes, I went and did volleyball because my dad didn’t know anything about it. So he couldn’t, he couldn’t yell at me. I mean, he could be on me to work out. But he couldn’t be on me about the technique, because he didn’t know.

It is such an important point that you’re making, because it is a struggle point in a lot of families where they do get fixated on one sport, and they feel that then their child has to excel at it and get to all the levels that you alluded to earlier with, you know, some of the professional athletes and elite level athletes, which is such a small percentage of the population in the first place. So let’s go back a bit Kiersten and talk about when do you think a child in general should ideally even start playing sports?

Well, again, it’s specific to the family. And if you have older siblings that are already doing it, usually the middle or the youngest child starts earlier than the oldest. But, you know, if you have a kid who’s watching, you know, watching volleyball on TV and says, gosh, I want to try that. I like to let the kids lead, you know, and you expose it to him. And maybe you do you go to the beach and try a session on the beach. And if they say, Gosh, that was really interesting. Let’s do it, or they play T ball for a season where it’s only three months and try it sampling is a great thing to do. And again, they sample one time and they’re like, Yeah, that’s not for me. But there are other kids that, you know, I had a mom come to me, she’s like, Oh, I’m so sorry. I said when she goes, we’re so late, but she’s already 10. And she hasn’t played at all. And like, that’s wrong, that we’re in a, you know, I didn’t start playing volleyball till I was 15 Until I was a high school freshman in high school went on to play in college, right like, but because we’re so now conditioned, that they need to start out of the womb, we’re getting we’re not It’s not being fair to the kids.
And then the other part of exactly that is, you know, the whole idea of gently encouraging them, which is what you’re talking about, versus really pushing them to, you know, reach their potential, even if it’s something that they’re not enjoying. So what can you tell us about what how a parent can steer through that?
It’s a good one, right. And some parents, you know, I’ve got one client who, her mom’s in the LA symphony, so very, very musical. And the mom admits, you know, I’m not an athlete, and the dad was, and the child isn’t. So the child wants to play piano, and we’d rather be reading a book, but the dad really wants her to be playing volleyball. And when you ask the child, do you like volleyball? She says, No, but my dad does. And that’s hard when you know, the kids just want to make their parents happy. That’s what they’re looking for. So I try to help the parents realize, you know, again, maybe this child isn’t right for a team sport. Maybe again, what we want by seven by age 13, almost 70% of kids are dropping out of sport altogether. Why? Because they’re not having any fun. Why? Because we’ve sucked all the fun out of it. We’re making it so serious, so early, that kids are like, I really just want my parents love. And if I’m not going to make them happy, I don’t want to participate in this. So I’m gonna go try and find it, you know, doing something else. So again, for an enlightened parent who’s like, wow, the kid never has their stuff ready to go and look for the signs. They’re never ready to go. They complain all the way they’re in the car. They never pick up the ball or go do extra reps on their own. You’re looking for curiosity. What is it that they’re like wow, are they watching video boys tend to do this more than girls but you know boys can list every player in the MLB or every every NHL player like they can tell you all the stats because they’re naturally drawn drawn to that. But if you have a child who’s showing zero interest outside of you know are sometimes they go but they don’t complain, but they they never ask for anything extra or Gosh, I really want to go play with my sister in the backyard for a little bit. You’re looking for curiosity, and if you’re not finding it within them, then that’s the that’s the opportunity which is what are they going to be curious at? Okay, great. This wasn’t my daughter 17 I think she’s pivoting away from volleyball right now she’s going to be a senior in high school, but she loves to write. So this summer she’s gonna go do a writing camp. Like, it’s, here’s the you know, the newsflash, what we’re all going to have to pivot, you know, even LeBron James at 38 is going to say goodbye soon, right? Very soon. So, you know, less than 7% will play at college probably now with COVID, less than 5%, D, one, D two through D three Nai. Point 001 will play pro. So if you’re raising a pro athlete, if that’s your goal, you know, if you’re, you know, if you were a pro athlete, okay, you probably have a shot at it. But for most of us, I think the goal is to raise good people, right? And and what we want from those experiences of sport is to learn the life lessons that will help them with their first professor with their first boss in their first relationship of who am I, what do I what do I stand for? How do I deal with adversity? How do I come back when I don’t play when I sit the bench when I you know, get cut? Those are the lessons that? No, we don’t really want them to learn. But they’re the ones that are going to serve them in the long run.

Absolutely. Now, your book is called Raising empowered athletes. What was it that made you want to write a book on this? We’ve talked about your background in sport. But why was it important for you to put this down in a book form?

So before we returned, I was telling you, we’ve lived all over the place, and when in Europe for 10 years, and then with the three children, you know, in Portland, and in San Diego, Buffalo and LA, and we got to LA, eight years ago, my middle one was 12 years old. I’ve never been to LA before, didn’t know where the school was, I had to get the middle of the youngest one to school in a different direction. Traffic is bumper to bumper, I find the kids are walking in a certain direction. I can’t catch a guy’s eye on the sidewalk. And Parker, my middle one turns me on. He’s like, Mom, I got it. I’m like, Yeah, but I don’t know what I got it gets out of the car, he runs to the curb, the guy rolled out in the window, the guy says, Don’t worry, I’ll take him. You want to know that you can drop your kid off in the corner of Los Angeles, having never been to the school, not knowing a soul that he has agency that he says, I can figure this out. Fast forward. Five years later, my eldest is at Boston University playing basketball during COVID. And having you know, a miserable experience, getting COVID and then runs into the biggest guy on the team during practice and gets a concussion. He’s 4000 miles away. He calls me, I’m okay, I’m going to figure this out. I’ve got the staff. We want them to have agency, we want them to feel like they are enough. Regardless of sport, or not, regardless of whether I’m there or not. And what we’re seeing now is a lot of helicopter parenting a lot of snowplow parenting, a lot of this coach isn’t good enough, this teacher isn’t good enough this, and we just keep picking them up and not allowing them to have that discomfort of not knowing what’s next, and allowing them to figure it out. And it’s hard. It’s really hard, because nobody wants to see their kids suffer. At the same time. You know, our parents, like waved goodbye at the plane and said, you know, we’ll see at Christmas, yet now we’re by this phone, we’re tethered to them. And we know I know people who are calling the kid to wake them up every day, when they’re away from college like they’ve never failed. They’ve never failed the test. They’ve never failed to miss, you know, miss the class, they’ve never had any opportunity to learn about agency. So when I think of empowered, I think have I got this, we all want to know where enough. And that’s what I believe, you know, it would be the biggest gift for me as a parent would be to all three my kids saying, Mom, I got this.

Absolutely. Now you talk about LeBron James, we talked about, you know, to some extent the impact that celebrities, professional athletes have in the world at large, but specifically on the psyche of a young child or some some child who’s just playing sports at a young age, whether they’re an elite level or just for fun. What do you think the impact of so much of this in their face is on a daily basis for that young athlete?

You know, I think it’s a it’s a mixed bag. I mean, some of it like like a LeBron like a Steph Curry, like a Serena. They’re positive role models and you know, again, hopefully the the goal is they you know, I you know, Kobe Bryant did a lot of great things in his lifetime. him. And he talks a lot about his work ethic. So I think there’s a lot of things that that they can be inspired by. But they also you don’t want them to be hamstrung by the idea that the only definition of success is if I get to where they are, my journey is going to be different. If they realize, you know, maybe some of the best ones will get to the level that LeBrons at, but you hear more stories of kids that are stars in eighth grade, or freshman or even college. And now with the NFL, the National the, the incentives that the players are getting with the transfer portal, there’s so much pressure so early, and these kids aren’t able to sustain, you know, and again, it’s such a small percentage of them, that you don’t want them putting all of their eggs in that basket and thinking that’s the only way I’ll be happy is if I get to that level.

Are there any trends currently, Kirsten, that you are noticing, both on both sides of the ledger positive as well as worrisome that you can share with us?

Yeah, well, I think the schools, you know, again, nice that some of these girls, these people are getting paid, these athletes are getting paid and your seat he’s saying, guy, no Stanford University gave every athlete $50,000 Last year, so there’s some kids that are coming to college, they can’t afford to go to college, and then their parents, you know, need the money, then, but on the flip side, are they being so incentivized by you’re losing, you know, at the college level, using a lot of what athletic amateurism is about, because now everybody’s looking for the next best deal. I mean, I’ve talked to both of my son’s play college basketball stars talk to many coaches, and like one said, our star, you know, got an offer to go to a bigger school for $35,000. So he left, whereas, you know, 1015 years ago, you would stay and be a part and there’d be a family and you would you know, I just was at alum event from high school, William and Mary, where you were with those athletes for that, you know, long period of time, and that became a family for you. Now you have a lot of one and done, you know, particularly more on the men’s side and the women’s, but you’re seeing you know, positives for the women they’re getting, you know, some really big six figure. And I LDL is a fact I saw today, Caitlin Clark, the best player for Iowa. There she was at an event a baseball game, and there was a lot of mile mile long line waiting to have her autograph, things like that would have never happened. So that’s, that’s the upside of, of, you know, the exposure that the women’s sports are getting. But you know, it’s going to come at a price too.

So what concerns you the most, as you see this all play out currently, and certainly being a mother yourself and having kids who are athletes, what concerns you most?

I think the pressure that parents feel, all overall at such a young age that we don’t get to really enjoy just going to the game that I talked to parents of, again, eight 910 year olds who are already feeling like the pressure that they need to have it all mapped out, or their kids not going to be happy or successful, or the ones that are undersized by the time they get to high school. And they’ve spent the last 10 years invested in, you know, basketball or golf or whatever. And he’s only five, eight. So he’s not going to make the team and how do I help? How do they help him reframe what his new normal will be when we’ve been all leading on, you know, on his dream and wanting to support him and knowing that this was his passion, but helping parents. That’s what really the book is about is help if we help ourselves first, so that we can be I think of a big oak tree. And when the roots are grounded, then when not if but when the wind blows, that we’re not responding to absolutely everything that comes our way, whether it’s we’re going to a different club or move into it. I mean, I know families that are moving to different states, just to be in the better club to be at the better high school to have, you know, like, is that really what this is about? Or is it about them, again, experiencing some headwinds now so that when they leave the nest, they’ll understand Oh, this has happened before I can deal with this.

What would you like readers of your book to leave with Kiersten?

Hopefully, a little bit of humor. A little bit of we kind of laugh at ourselves. I am not a sage from the stage. I’m a guide from the side I’ve been doing this I’ve been in the trenches. A lot of this is my own learnings like it’s my own. You know, I went when I got pregnant. I think everybody hands you What to Expect When You’re Expecting. I don’t know if you get that in Toronto, but in the United States, that’s what you got. And when you get to kick and chase or T ball, you’re standing on the sidelines with all these other parents and you’re feeling like you don’t know what you’re supposed to do. So this hopefully is a book that says you’re doing the right thing. Keep going I keep listening to what’s important to you and to your children. And, you know, another great tool. And what I do with one on one coaching is they don’t want to listen at a certain age our kids, no matter how great you are, they don’t want to hear from you. So a lot of what I do is is working, I’ll talk to the parents and then I work one on one with the athletes to be that probably reiterating a lot of the messages you’re sending, but letting them know they are enough, they’re doing the right things. And then I gave them some tools to help them through any of those headwinds of getting cut or come overcoming an injury or understanding what it likes means to come off the bench, like all of these adverse things that help them feel like I kind of picture it being a toolbox, and if you’re added helping them add to their toolbox, they’re going to be that much more prepared when they’re heading out into the world.
Kirsten Jones performance coach, mother and author of raising empowered athletes. Thank you for your time and your perspective today.
Thank you, Lianne.

Jones spoke to Lianne Castelino, host of Where Parents Talk, about her book, “Raising Empowered Athletes,” from her home in Los Angeles. In the podcast and video interview, she expresses concern about the ever-increasing pressure on kids to play at a high level, to pursue sports scholarships at college, and to put performance ahead of fun and play.

When asked how parents can avoid falling into the trap of hyper-competitive sports, Jones says that parents should listen to their child and encourage them to try everything—from sports to music to drama—to find out what they love doing. Sample a wide range of activities and keep an eye out for signs of disinterest, like a kid who “never has their stuff ready to go… they’re never ready to go, they complain all the way they’re in the car, they never pick up the ball or go do extra reps on their own.” Instead, look for curiosity. Don’t sign them up too early and always insist that a child finish the season.

Jones tells Castelino that parents should ask themselves, “What are our family values? What’s important to us? Why? Why would we have them do that? … It’s all about starting with your own family values and what … you want your children to get out of sports.”

Jones, Kirsten.headshot

Kirsten Jones is a coach, speaker, author and mother of three.

When quizzed about the role of sports celebrities, Jones thinks they can be positive role models, as long as children don’t limit their definition of success to those highest levels of competition: “There’s so much pressure so early, and these kids aren’t able to sustain.” Statistically, less than five per cent of kids will actually end up playing at an elite level, so “you don’t want them putting all of their eggs in that basket,” thinking they will only be happy if they get to that level.

Parents need to stay focused on the bigger goal, which is to raise good people who are resilient, independent, and capable of dealing with adversity. “What I believe … would be the biggest gift for me as a parent would be [to hear] all three of my kids saying, ‘Mom, I’ve got this,’” Jones says.
Book cover.Raising Empowered Athletes.Jones, Kirsten

In her interview with Where Parents Talk, Jones also discusses:

  • The key challenges facing youth sports organizations today
  • When a child should start playing organized sports
  • What inspired her to write “Raising Empowered Athletes”
  • How parents can strike a balance between gently encouraging and pushing a child in sports

Related links:

Related stories:

How to Improve the Youth Sports Experience with Matt Young

What Parents Should Know about Keeping Sport Safe for Kids: Survivor POV

You May Also Like ..

Latest Tweets

Sponsored Ads

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This