Balancing the Scales: Avoiding Overscheduling in Youth Sports

My husband and I were thrilled when our 11-year-old daughter was selected for a Class I soccer team earlier this spring. It’s something she wanted and drove–she’s pretty headstrong–and we followed her lead. She loves soccer and wanted the greater challenge on the field. At the parent meeting, the coach clearly stated that once the calendar hit August 1st, it was serious soccer. From that date on, he expects the girls to be at every practice leading into the season. We were on board 100 percent.

Until our daughter’s good friend invited her to spend 10 days in Hawaii. In August. In the middle of the ‘serious’ practice season. I had been so careful to plan our family vacation in June to avoid our son’s July baseball commitments and our daughter’s August soccer commitments. I was the model, committed sports parent. And now I was faced with a dilemma. Do I deny my 11-year-old a wonderful experience that she would remember forever, in order to demonstrate our commitment to the new coach and protect her playing time for the entire season?

Whether it’s a vacation or another family, religious or school commitment, I’m sure many of you have been in my position. Striking the right balance between commitment to an athletic team — or multiple teams — and what’s right for your particular family is no easy task. But here are some guidelines to help reduce your family’s overall stress level and limit your child’s potential for physical injury and mental anxiety due to overuse and overscheduling.

  • Don’t be afraid to stand up for your family’s values — Somehow, in this youth-sports-crazy culture, we parents have forgotten that we can decide our family values and what’s right for our children. Too often, we let outside influences and peer pressure guide our decisions (yes, I’m guilty of that too…witness my summer vacation scheduling above). But we should remember that athletics are just one vehicle by which we demonstrate our values (e.g., commitment, sportsmanship, teamwork, etc.) to our children. Other ways are religious school and services attendance, school events, family celebrations, and the like. Whatever your values, the important thing is to be clear with the coach and the other parents–and not to confuse values with excuses. “Simon won’t be at practice on Wednesdays due to Hebrew school” is not the same as “Susie has a friend’s birthday party so she won’t be at the game.
  • Limit your child to one sport per season — Trying to juggle two or more teams’ demands, practices, and games places way too much pressure on everyone. To which coach do you apologize today? For which team does your child play this weekend? Step off the multi-sport treadmill and, trust me, you’ll feel a sense of relief. And make no mistake: I’m not saying pick one sport all year round. I’m saying pick one sport–preferably a different one–each season, which will also help reduce the high rate of overuse injuries we are seeing in young athletes today.
  • Build in downtime and family time into your weekly schedule — Exactly what you do during this time will be different for every family, but it’s so important to block out this time to keep the fabric of the family vibrant. Maybe it’s Friday night family dinner. Or a weekly family hike. Or even a single TV show that everyone watches together. Whatever it is, treat it like you would any other important appointment and stick to it.

The right balance is going to be different for each family and, you know what? That’s ok. Every family has different values and priorities. Just remember to be consistent in how you communicate those priorities to your children, to coaches, and other parents.

Finally, be prepared to explain the choices and tradeoffs to your child. When explained in clear terms, most kids will say, “I understand that I won’t start on Saturday because I missed practice for my grandmother’s birthday.” These consequences are life lessons that will serve your child well her entire life.

That trip to Hawaii? My daughter is going. Because in 10 years, she’ll recall the fun she had at the beach, hiking, and learning how to surf…not those two soccer practices she’ll be missing. And if she gets a little less playing time at the beginning of the season, so be it.


Emily is a freelance writer living in Berkeley, California. Emily brings a lot of first-hand experience to the table having been team manager for her children’s soccer, baseball, basketball, and softball teams and she also captains a number of her own adult tennis teams.

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