Are Sports Programs Making Kids Fat?

Sue Wicks’ Coca-Cola Foundation FIT event at the Armory in NYC

My friend Julie’s son is in an after-school football program that meets three days a week for three hours each practice.  He is 9-years-old.  If my son wants to play on his 7th grade soccer team, he needs to commit to practice three days a week, and devote a fourth day to playing games. My daughter would like to try ballet.  Of the four places I called, only one offers a less than three-day-a-week option for kids her age.  She’s 12.

It’s no wonder kids are dropping out of sports and other physical activities.

The problem is simple: recreational sports has all but disappeared for school-aged kids.  Somehow, in our zeal for our kids to be perfect at everything, we’ve forgotten that they can just have fun at some things.

True, I’ve written posts before about Why It’s Better to be a Drama Mom than a Soccer Mom, so I am biased, but I am not alone.

Last year, I interviewed Carl Lewis, 10 time Olympic Medalist – including nine Golds -about his involvement with the Hershey Games, a great national program to get kids moving.  He told me that across the country, schools are increasing the requirement for after school participation, thus discouraging casual athletes from participating at all. “The fact is,” he told me (and yes, I’m paraphrasing, it was a year ago), “less than one tenth of one percent of these kids is going to be me – an Olympic Champion.  They don’t need to train that hard.”

So they opt out all together, and that’s where the problems begin.

Sue Wicks, WNBA legend, agrees: “We’re not developing Olympians.” she told me, “We are developing healthy, active, individuals.”

Once kids are in High School, I can see why more intense practice hours and a bigger commitment to your team matters.  But for nine year olds?  Give me a break.  Some kids want that kind of intensity, and good for them. And I’m certainly not saying that sports can’t offer kids valuable lessons, give them skills that will translate into other areas of their lives.  It’s why Wicks recently ran a FIT clinic for inner city kids in NYC, celebrating a grant from the Coca Cola Foundation.  It’s why Lewis is a spokesman for the Hershey Track and Field Games. And it’s why I think those lessons and skills should be available to all kids – not just the super jocks.

“For kids, sports should be about kids being active, not about being the best.”

Kids are just as (un)likely to become famous artists as they are famous athletes. Yet, no one thinks that if your kid likes to draw, they need to be in art class twelve hours a week. So why, if kids like to do sports, do they need to participate in them to the exclusion of all else?  Because what happens is, kids who are casually interested in sports end up not participating at all. By the time they’re 10 or 11, casual options have all but disappeared.  That’s when a sedentary lifestyle takes hold.

It’s hard to think all of this is not contributing to the 20% obesity rate of kids 7-11. According to the CDC, “Obese youth are more likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure.”  In addition, obese kids  “are at greater risk for bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and social and psychological problems such as stigmatization and poor self-esteem.”

Being active can help with all of that: helping to combat obesity, increasing self-esteem, fostering teamwork and friendships.

So shouldn’t all kids have the opportunity to participate?

“Let them play and enjoy the sport” says Wicks. “That’s the most important part.”


  1. says

    I so agree! The time commitment for some of these things is crazy. Plus, when you talk to other mothers, they’ll tell you their kids who need to commit to all these hours start getting anxious because there’s not enough time to do homework. Rec sports seem to go by the wayside as kids get older – and it’s all about being competitive…

  2. Anna Rabinowitz says

    Nancy, I agree completely. I wish there was a way to begin a national discussion about this. There are only so many hours in the day and we seem to be putting too much focus on competitiive sports. What ever happened to the idea of being well-rounded with a focus on developing curiosity and interests that range beyond winning every game one plays? And, let’s not forget a little leisure time to simply be a kid.

  3. Sandrine says

    I completely agree – my son started football practice this year, in 6th grade, 3 hours 3 times a week plus games on saturdays. Not only he is working late on these practice nights to finish on homework but he can’t even catch up on sleep on saturdays mornings. He can’t practice any other sport for fun and is constantly struggling for time as there are so many hours in a week. I don’t see the point of such time commitment in sports at that age. It also impacts family life, as I cannot take care of my daughter as well being caught up in drop offs and pick ups!

  4. greekula22 says

    We have this problem too – our son is just not that committed to excellence in a single sport, and on top of it, all of the ”casual” sports programs are infiltrated by the future pros, so even when you find a program that your kid will do with a sport they like and with real activity, it can easily be co-opted by the kids who are doing that program in two other locations that week. (Don’t get me started on the three dads with six kids at one private school who took over our baseball team last year and held practices at their school, which did not permit unenrolled children in the gym). This competitive level makes the amateurs withdraw and feel incompetent. We’ve tried a bunch of stuff, but we’re going back to track, mostly because the 10 year olds that are ”serious” about track have moved on.

    • says

      Ugh. Really, is there anything else to say? Whatever happened to fun? And why do parents need their kids to be THE BEST at everything? Sad. And setting their kids up for failure, too. Since no one – NO ONE – can, by definition, be THE BEST at everything.

  5. lindastoria says

    Are we really looking at these programs being used as an outlet for parents to project their own fantasies on their children rather than allowing their children to do them for their own sake?

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