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Youth Sports in the US

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    Youth Sports in the US

    I'm still a few years off my kids playing real organized competitive sports, but I'm still trying to get my head around how things work in the US of A now that I see all the tryouts posts on Nextdoor and in my neighborhood. My question is how can my kid play competitive sport if he's not that good?

    For some context, I grew up in South Africa, and most sport was played through your highschool (which runs 8-12th grade). They were divided by age U14, U15/U16 and U19. But rather than trying out for "the team" you tried out for "a team," and people would move up and down a bit during the season. And we had as many teams as we had people interested. I think one year we had six or seven U14 girls field hockey teams. The A team was pretty good, the B team slighlty worse, etc. and the E and F teams were a chaotic mess of uncoordination. For me, I was pretty good at field hockey (the boys variety) so played U14 my first year and then for our U19 "A team" or the First team for the rest of the time I was in high school, skipping the intermediate age level. In cricket, I was decent, but not good enough for the First team in my later years, so I played in the Second team and once or twice was promoted when players were sick or injured.

    So what I don't understand is, what do my kids do if you don't make the team in a tryout? Are you SOOL? Do you go to practice and just never get "put in"? What if my kids have late growth spurts and then don't get the training and practice? What if they are just truly not good (because their father has no idea about how to teach them about american sports) but want to play and have the experience of playing competitively against other teams they don't know?

    I'm not interested in participation trophies etc. but I am interested in the important life lessons that playing competitive team sports give you and giving them the immense pleasure and joy I got from it, and from my current understanding I don't understand why that is so limited in the US.

    I don't have kids and didn't really do sports as a kid, but I am an American who grew up in American sports culture, so I am marginally qualified to answer your question....

    At least where I grew up, there are both competitive and more recreational sporting opportunities for many age groups. This is true of both school-run sports organizations as well as independent sports organizations. For example, in addition to the "varsity" teams that schools have that are competitive, there may also be lower level competitive school teams (junior varsity, frosh) as well as intramural sports leagues that only compete within the school or within a limited group of schools. I wasn't very good at or interested in sports but I did a little bit of intramural stuff here and there (soccer, basketball, volleyball), mostly in elementary and middle school.

    Youth sports are pretty huge in American culture and so I don't think there's a big risk that your kid(s) won't be able to find some level to play at, even if they aren't very good at sports. It's just going to depend on what is available and supported in your area. Less common sports like rugby, lacrosse, hockey, softball, etc are less likely to be school-based and more likely to exist either as independent youth rec leagues or attached to adult recreational leagues that are more based on providing opportunities to kids who want to play, rather than trying to build successful competitive teams for schools.

    Plus there are always sports like track, cross country, swimming, wrestling, and so on where you can participate even if you're not very good because your individual performance may not have an impact on others or on the team. I had friends on our track, cross country, and swim teams who weren't very athletic but did it as more of a social thing, and it didn't matter that they weren't very good.

    As someone who was/is not athletically gifted and didn't participate much in sports, I'll also say that the same sort of character-building that people associate with youth sports can also be found in other avenues. I was very involved in art classes (both school and non-school) and, later, in music and AP classes. I actually think being involved in a music ensemble, or something similar, may be better for character-building than competitive sports because the overall experience is so much more collaborative and creative, and success is not measured by points or wins. (Which is not to say it is not competitive or does not provide the opportunity for competition, both through auditioning for higher ensembles and positions within those ensembles as well as auditioning and playing for All-State ensembles and so on.)

    My dad was a successful athlete in high school and college and had a very physically-oriented job as a Marine Corps infantry officer, so he struggled to understand me as a kid as I was not athletically gifted at all and much more interested in art, music, and reading. But once I was in high school and became successful as a musician it finally clicked to him that my concerts were to me the same thing that his games had been to him, my rehearsals were the same as his practices, and my passion for and success in music was going to open some of the same opportunities for me and give me the same joy that he had gotten from sports when he was a kid. Even though my interests were different than his had been, he still enthusiastically attended my concerts and supported me just the same as other parents attended their kids' games.

    TL;DR: Even if your kids suck at sports and hate them, they will have opportunities to find and pursue their own interests and find their own identities and passions and that is something you should be willing to get on board with even if their interests are not the same as yours from when you were a kid.
    Last edited by LesserBlackDog; September 12, 2019, 02:13 PM.


      At least for a sport like hockey (and several others) the breaking point is usually “house” leagues and travel. Most house leagues are if you sign up you’re on a team of an appropriate age, size, and/or skill level.

      Then there are travel teams where tryouts are needed. Your kids may not make the team. At least for hockey can cost 2-3k per season. They are usually more competitive and involve traveling out of the area to compete with other teams based on age and location. You can see a wide variety of talent and competition.

      High school sports differ. At my private high school it was if you come out your on the team but that doesn’t guarantee play time. At my sisters public school there were the different levels based on skill. Many good kids will play across all three levels.


        I was pretty bad at most of the sports I tried as a kid. I played AYSO soccer and baseball, basketball, and roller hockey through my local Boys and Girls Club. I actually stopped playing any sports for a couple of years until I hit high school. That's when I found rowing. Joining the crew team changed my life. I found a passion for the sport and ended up qualifying to compete at the national level.

        There are lots of different levels that your kids can enter into a sport. I would take it easy at first. Let them try out different sports and if it doesn't click, when the season is over try something different. Personally I would stay away from club sports and travel teams unless your kid is totally committed and really loves the higher level of competition. Some kids (myself included) just aren't ready physically or otherwise for the intensity that even the more casual leagues can present. Some sports tend to favor a high level of competition in very young athletes (gymnastics, swimming come to mind) while others (running, rowing) seem to allow older athletes to compete at a high level. There's something for everyone, let your kid try lots of things to find what they like. They will settle into the level of competition that is appropriate for their skill and commitment.