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As commitment to youth sports takes up more time and money, parents weigh options

Posted at 4:26 PM, Aug 20, 2019

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DENVER — There is a level of competition that comes with just about any game or sport a child chooses to play. For many kids, athletics are a way learn the fundamentals of a game, get exercise and meet others.

However, some children learn at an early age that they excel at a certain sport and can compete at a higher level with a lot of practice. The higher the competition level, the more training and practice is necessary.

For some of the most-talented athletes, sports can become something like a part-time job, even interfering with a child’s schooling or social life.

It’s up to parents to make the best decisions for their kids by finding a balance between it all.

A balancing act

Brad Lupher spends a lot of time worrying about his 12-year-old son, Parker. He’s a junior Olympic gymnast who also holds a Guinness world record.

The Lupher family noticed Parker’s potential at a young age and, since then, his gymnastics schedule has gotten more and more competitive.

These days, Parker spends five days a week, four hours a day, in the gym for practice.

“Sometimes I’m a little bit torn if even that is a little too much for my son. I feel like I’m sending him to a part-time job sometimes, but he loves it. He really has a passion for it,” Brad Lupher said.

There are a lot of benefits he sees to having a child in sports — from self-confidence to discipline, to work ethic and losing with grace.

“He fails a lot and I think that his failing has really helped him just in life, in general,” Lupher said.

Parker has two siblings who also play sports but not on as competitive of a level. Seven-year-old Jordan does competitive cheerleading and 15-year-old Braeden is a competitive ninja warrior.

The family only has one rule when it comes to sports: If the kids sign up for a sport, they must complete the season and fulfill the commitment they made to the team. After that season, they can step away or try another sport.

Other than that, as long at the kids are doing well in school, they are allowed to try the sports they want.

Lupher says he keeps an eye on his son to make sure he isn’t getting burned out from the training and competitions. He also checks in with Parker regularly to make sure he is still enjoying the sport.

However, these types of competitive schedules are not only a commitment for the athletes — but also their families.

Some families in Parker’s gymnastics class have decided to start homeschooling their children to allow them to have enough time for training. But Lupher says he didn’t want to go that route right now.

“We didn’t want to sacrifice his entire childhood for this sport,” he said.

Highly competitive sports can also take away from things like family dinners or attending friends’ birthday parties. Lupher says that his other children can also be resentful at times with the amount of time the family dedicated to Parker’s gymnastics schedule.

In the end, though, Lupher allows Parker to determine how much time he wants to spend training.

“As long as he wants to do it and as long as he loves it, we’re going to support it. We never force any of this upon our kids,” Lupher said.

Making a change

The Gudridge family lives their life around the hockey rink. Nicole Gudridge has two sons who compete at the AAA hockey level and a daughter who dances.

The boys play for the Colorado Thunderbirds and, between the two of them, practice six days a week.

The hockey rink is about 45 minutes away from the family’s home. Nicole splits up the drives between herself, her husband and her mother to make everything work.

“It is a huge family commitment, and everybody has to be on board. You give up a lot in our own personal life to take them to practice or to travel with them,” she said.

Along with the practices and competitions, the boys each travel seven to nine times during the fall and winter. In the spring they play on different teams in other countries.

“Mason missed almost 40 days of school last year even though we made him make every single project and activity up at school and he did end up with great grades. Jordan missed around 32 days of school last year,” Gudridge said.

The boys missed enough days to cause the family to start receiving letters from the district. They boys still had good grades. Their parents, who are both academics, made sure of that. However, missing that much school was also taking a toll on the boys.

This year, the family has decided to change schools and send Mason and Jordan to one that focuses on hockey.

“We ultimately left the decision up to the boys, but we did make sure that the school followed certain standards of education,” Gudridge said.

They are going to try the school out for one year, hoping it will offer more flexibility for the boys’ rigorous hockey schedules.

“They do the training during the day and their schooling as well, so they won’t miss as many days as they would in a traditional school setting,” Gudridge said.

The family is trying to find a balance for their kids when it comes to academics and sports, hoping that this change will be better for their families in the long run.

The downside of competitive sports

Brian Gearity has a more diverse sports experience than most. Not only is he a former college football player, he also is the director of the Master’s in the Arts Sports Coaching Program at the University of Denver.

Gearity has seen the downsides of sports. One of the biggest downsides is the potential for injury.

“You look nowadays too at traumatic brain injury, concussions, those are the ones getting a lot of attention,” he said. “But if you look at athletes over their lifetime, there’s other research too that will show chronic arthritis.”

There is also the possibility of exclusion for young athletes that come from families with fewer means.

As athletes start dedicating an increased amount of time to sports at an early age, the sports are becoming more expensive between equipment, training and travel.

“People with a disposable income are actually the ones that can afford them and can have the flexibility in their work schedule or hire somebody to take their child to all of the games and meets,” Gearity says.

However, there are some studies that show that the more parents invest on their child’s sport, the higher expectations they have for them.

Instead of spending thousands of dollars on new equipment, Gearity believes it’s a good idea for parents to buy used equipment to let their kids figure out whether they even like the sport before starting to seriously invest in it.

On the other hand, the families of some athletes from lower means try to use sports as a way to pay for college, adding additional pressure.

“It would be great to have college be more affordable so that way there wasn’t that structural barrier for young people and their parents to say, ‘Hey you better do good at playing football because we’re depending on you,’” Gearity said.

Along with being a former player-turned-professor, Gearity is also a father; his son was a state champion in gymnastics who was spending about 15 hours per week in the gym for the past two years.

Like many parents, Gearity says he pushes his children to understand how to succeed and how to overcome failure. Recently, though, his 11-year-old decided to leave the sport.

Instead of having his son leave, Gearity spent weeks talking with his son to try to determine whether he was having a bad month or if he truly lost interest in the sport and why. Part of it had to do with the stress and pressure of performing on that level at such a young age.

Another reason his son wanted to leave the sport was because he wasn’t able to see his friends.

Together, the two came up with a two-month plan to withdraw from gymnastics. For parents, Gearity says there are warning signs to look out for which could determine whether their child is losing interest in a sport.

Is the child crying a lot during or after practice or a competition? Are they making up stories about injuries? Are they showing signs of stress like gastrointestinal problems?

In the end, he believes it’s important for children to have a chance to participate in less-structured sports like pick-up games without parents, coaches or pressure to perform so they can just have fun playing.

“We confuse sports and play because sometimes we play sports. But not all sports are play,” he said.

Beyond competition

Athletics can mean more to the athletes and their families than simple competition. For some, it can be an indicator of their identity. Sports can determine how an athlete determines success or failure and whether it is based on winning or reaching personal goals.

“It’s very easy, especially in the world of sports, to put all of your sense of self into your performance,” said Steve Portenga, a sports and performance psychologist with iPerformance Consultants. “You define your value and your worth based on whether you won or lost the last competition.”

Using athletics to find an identity can also extend to families. Portenga says he has met families where the parents put a lot of effort into their kids’ sports — to the point where their identity is dependent on their child’s athletic success.

However, using athletics for an individual or family identity can put additional pressure on the child to not only perform well but to stay in the sport even if they don’t want to. It can also lead to rifts within a family or an unhealthy or uncomfortable dynamic.

Parents can also unintentionally add pressure on their children to perform well without knowing it.

“Asking, ‘Did you win’ versus, ‘Did you have fun or did you learn something’ — it’s a small thing but it creates a big impression in their kids’ minds,” Portenga said.

Competitiveness can also happen at any level, regardless of whether the child is playing a rec sport or on a bigger stage.

However, Portenga says keeping kids out of sports or not allowing them to compete presents different challenges, and that competition can be a good thing.

“For better or worse, competition is sort of an inherent part of how we do a lot of things in our culture,” he said.

Even if a kid is not competing on a soccer field or basketball court, they will eventually compete to get into a college or for a job opening, grant or more. That’s why Portenga believes it’s important for parents to teach their kids about how to handle competition and the lessons that come from success and failure.

“I think it’s a lot better to do that appropriately and developmentally and guide and teach through those processes as opposed to trying to protect and hide and pretend they don’t exist,” he said.

For parents who are using sports as a platform to instill those lessons in their kids, Portenga says it’s important to pay attention to their kids to make sure the competition they are experiencing and the pressure they are dealing with is healthy.

“Anytime someone gets really upset that something doesn’t go right to the point of animosity, where there’s name-calling or there’s blaming,” Portenga said. “When it’s more toward animosity and anger, that would definitely be a red flag.”

An individual decision

Both Gudridge and Lupher say having their children compete at such a high level has been a major commitment for the entire family and something people need to discuss before committing to a particular team or sport.

In the end, though, whether it’s in the hockey rink, on the basketball court or in some other sport, it’s up to each family to determine how much time they want to dedicate to it and the sacrifices they are willing to make.