When We Were Kids 

The Culture of Youth Sports in America

Under the Radar

Julia Radhakrishnan

September 22nd, 2016


Sports are an invaluable part of American culture. Every day thousands of people across the nation congregate in front of televisions to watch their favorite team battle it out in pursuit of a national title. But at what cost? Millions of children across the nation devote hours to their perspective sports in the hopes of “turning pro.” The culmination of these hours all too often leads to injury or a loss of opportunity in other fields. This article is not meant to condemn youth sports, it is simply an examination of the culture of youth sports that plays such a pivotal part in the lives of American children.


Youth sports in America has become so big, it could be considered its own industry. According to ESPN, there are 21.5 million kids between the ages of 6 and 17 playing sports across the nation. That is greater than the population of the state of New York. ESPN goes on to report that over half of suburban boys in grades 3 through 5 are part of three or more sports teams. That is a staggering amount of practice for a child so young. 39% of suburban middle school boys and 38% of urban middle school boys are also a part of three or more sports teams. On a related note, according to Stop Sports Injuries, almost half of all sports injuries to middle and high school students are a result of overuse. Kids are practicing harder, faster and longer in the hopes of making it big, but this could be the thing that prevents them from doing so. ESPN reported that 29% of boys who quit a sport and 27% of girls who did the same did so because of a health problem or injury.


For many young people, sports are their chance to “make it big.” But in pursuit of this chance many of them miss out on a chance to enjoy their childhood or explore other activities and, for some, it is over just as quickly as it started. Take the case of Shawn Johnson. In 2008, Johnson won four Olympic medals as a member of the US women's gymnastics team. At just 16, she had achieved the Olympic dream she had spent her life working towards. While she did not want to give up the sport she had devoted herself to for so long, a knee injury kept her out of 2012 Olympic trials and she retired. According to WBUR, regarding retiring, Johnson said "it's difficult for any elite athlete to give up the one thing they've devoted their life for. It was challenging and emotional deciding to kind of put aside the one thing that I knew I could succeed at." Johnson had spent her entire life as a gymnast, it was all she knew, and by the young age of 20, it was over. Today, Johnson is a wife, personal trainer and spokesperson.


I started gymnastics at the age of nine, relatively late in the game compared to most. Last year, as a sophomore in high school, I was forced to come to terms with the fact that being a full-time gymnast was not for me. Between 16 hours of practice a week and homework, I had no time to try anything new. I was a gymnast and student, but nothing else. I made the decision to become an event specialist, meaning I was no longer an all-around gymnast. Today I compete on floor and support my team as they compete on all four events: vault, bars, beam and floor. I cut down my training to 8-10 hours a week and it opened up opportunities I did not even know I had. I made my school’s speech and dive teams. I volunteered once a week at an elementary school. I joined several clubs. According to ESPN, this is a common mindset among female students. A survey by Don Sabo of the Women’s Sports Foundation showed that 58% of female students quit a sport to focus on grades or on other clubs and activities.


Youth sports are not a bad thing. They encourage children to turn off the electronics, get outdoors, make friends and stay active. However, it is time to take a long, hard look at how much we are demanding of student athletes in this country. The intense hours may have positive results in the eyes of some, but for others they can have negative side effects.