Book review: ‘Overplayed’

Mar 28, 2016 by

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When my 13-year-old son announced last spring that he wanted to play baseball again, I cringed. I had hoped the days of watching tedious games in freezing Oregon springtime were far behind us, our son having decided three years earlier that he was done with the sport and wanted to focus solely on Taekwondo.

Overplayed: A Parent's Guide to Sanity in the World of Youth Sports

Overplayed: A Parent’s Guide to Sanity in the World of Youth Sports

But now he wanted in again, especially as several of his friends were playing in the local Babe Ruth league. His dad — a diehard baseball fan — signed Ben up, while I mostly fretted, worried the three years he hadn’t played would put him too far behind his peers, worried that he would be teased, worried he would ride the bench while we shivered behind the backstop.

Many games last year were cold and damp (and, I would add, boring). But Ben had a good time playing and enjoyed his teammates, despite being the least skilled on his team. Turns out, my response to Ben’s baseball season was based more on my internalization of many myths surrounding youth sports than anything else, something I most fully realized when reading Overplayed, a new book by David King and Margot Starbuck.

The authors promise, in their subtitle, A Parent’s Guide to Sanity in the World of Sports, and the book definitely delivers: This parent, at least, feels a little more settled about the choices I’ve made regarding my sons and sports and the choices I will make going forward. Both King and Starbuck write with a good bit of authority, both as parents who have had (or who currently have) children in youth sports leagues. King is the athletic director at Eastern Mennonite University and writes from the perspective of someone who contends with college athletes suffering burnout and disappointment after years of playing youth sports.

King and Starbuck address seven myths about youth sports that adults perpetuate, conveying to children unintended messages about what parents value regarding performance, success, family, community and even justice and equity. These myths are persistent and deeply rooted in youth sports culture, King and Starbuck argue. The very system we believe is teaching our children important lessons about teamwork and fitness may, instead, be damaging them in significant ways.

Overplayed devotes a chapter to each myth, both deconstructing that myth and also providing alternative ways families can positively engage with youth sport culture. These myths include the sense that parents need to provide children with every opportunity possible; the belief that children should begin specifying in one sport at a young age; the assertion that youth sports reflect and instill only positive values; and the hope that investing in youth sports will pay off in the long run with college scholarships.

King and Starbuck consider the myth that parents need to attend every sports event in which children compete, sometimes at cost to other family members, finances and even one’s own well- being. Parents who cannot attend every game sometimes think they are failing their athletic children, though Overplayed asserts that parents should not watch every game and practice. Indeed, the authors give parents permission to intentionally miss several competitions each season. Otherwise, King and Starbuck argue, parents are conveying to their children that performance matters most of all.

Parents also become overinvested in their kids’ sports, both limiting the effectiveness of coaches and other adults in children’s lives and making it less likely that children will assume responsibility for their own involvement: in sports and in other places. In this chapter alone, King’s and Starbuck’s advice seems invaluable, freeing parents from the tyranny of weekend-long tournaments, and the exhaustion that sets in from watching one’s child for hours on end.

While King and Starbuck work hard to acknowledge what is right about having children play organized sports, they also recommend that families consider the significant costs of youth sports culture, in terms of financial resources certainly, but also in terms of emotional, physical and relational costs to children and to families. Fundamentally, Overplayed argues that an overinvestment in youth sports can erode a family’s values, especially when weekend competitions trump church attendance; when winning at (almost) all costs trumps community and good-will; and when elite sports leagues are often founded on privilege that undermines the Christian call to work for justice and equity.

Overplayed is an excellent resource for any parent who has wondered even momentarily about how youth sports might negatively influence children. King and Starbuck definitely fulfill their promise of offering parents a guide to sanity. Readers will find their book challenging and their suggestions about reforming sports culture helpful. I will definitely use Overplayed to inform the ways I relate to my sons and their sports activities. I might still be shivering behind the backstop, but I’ll be in a different frame of mind.

Melanie Springer Mock is professor of English at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore.

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