Youth sports: Guidance for families


by Melodie Davis

Dave King

Dave King is athletics director at Eastern Mennonite University. Photo provided

Margot Starbuck

Margot Starbuck, co-author with Dave King of Overplayed is from North Carolina. Photo provided

Dave King, director of athletics at Eastern Mennonite University, has become very concerned about what has happened in organized sports for kids in the last 15-20 years. Dave has been involved in sports at various levels all of his life, and so has his wife Deb and all three of their children. So it’s not that’s he anti-athletic—far be it. He lauds the positive experiences that can come with children enjoying soccer, basketball, gymnastics, baseball and football from early ages through college and as lifelong enjoyment.

He and a co-writer, Margot Starbuck of Durham, N.C., have written “Overplayed: A Parent’s Guide to Sanity in the World of Youth Sports” published March 8 by Herald Press.

Margot and Dave explore questions many parents have about how much sports is too much? Are youth travel teams worth the investment when it comes to entering frequent tournaments in distant cities? What if your child wants to quit? Does playing competitive team sports year round hurt your child’s body and development in any way?

Margot and her husband have three children ages 15-17 and is still “smack-dab in the middle of carting kids around to practices and games,” as she says in the book. An athlete herself, for five years, Margot coached Special Olympics basketball in California. After seminary at Princeton, she worked as a chaplain among folks living with intellectual and physical disabilities. She has authored numerous books published by InterVarsity Press and Baker Books, as well as writing in various family or Christian publications.

The authors write, “Ultimately, we both love sports. We love our kids and other people’s kids. We love God. We’ve got a lot of questions about the direction and demands of the youth sports movement today. … So we want you to know: you’re not alone.”

This article focuses on Dave since he is known in the Shenandoah Valley, where he talks frequently in churches about sports, faith and families. He grew up playing many sports—mostly either church league or at home, but cautions about today’s scenario where some have organized teams for children as young as 5. “I was seeing how many families were caught up in traveling all over the country and paying large sums of money, missing their church and family activities for the sake of sports, and I wasn’t quite sure why they were doing it.”

Does playing competitive team sports year round hurt your child’s body and development in any way?

As Dave researched organized sports for children, he learned that 70 percent of the children who start playing a sport when they’re 9 quit by the time they’re 13. The most common reason kids gave for quitting was because it was no longer fun, with standings and all-star teams, and other aspects creating pressure to win.

“To a large extent the youth sports movement in our travel and club systems is a pyramid system,” notes Dave. “You start off with everyone playing but then quickly you select for this travel team and then it’s the premier team and then it’s the all-star team or something else. The system quickly shifts to who’s the best and can we go beat somebody in the next town. That shouldn’t be the purpose for 7-year-olds, in my mind.”

OverplayedDave encourages families to look for the alternative programs—where perhaps no scoreboard is used and children rotate to every playing position. “Find out what is happening in your local system,” Dave says. He discourages children playing one sport year round. “At certain ages, that is really detrimental to their health and physical development. I think that you actually become a better athlete if you play multiple sports.” Dave points out that most college athletes played multiple sports during middle and high school.

This athletic director encourages parents to consider their kids’ goals of involvement in sports. “Is success defined by being the high school star on their high school team? Or, are we concerned about their future success as a parent, as a community member and as a church member, when they’re 40?” he asks. “Ultimately, they’re going to be a person a lot longer than they are an athlete, so maybe we ought to worry about who they are as a person—and you can develop that through sports.”

He encourages families to set parameters early. “When you get the travel baseball schedule, look at it in comparison to the rest of the family schedule and go back to the coach and say, ‘I appreciate the fact that you’ve invited my son or daughter to play. We’ve looked at the schedule. Here are three times when we are not going be able to be there because we have church or family obligations,’ and then let them make the decision as to whether they want you to participate. If you don’t do it ahead of time, you’re going to get sucked in. I’ve heard that term so often from parents: ‘I’m sucked in and now I don’t know how to get out.’”

Dave suggests organizing with other parents. Ten families who became concerned about an increased travel schedule organized their own team and went to just three tournaments and still had a good season.

Dave feels attending games together is not necessarily family time. “It’s three or four people watching one participate,” he points out. He also questions what message you send your children if you skip church and Sunday school and family events for sporting events. “You’re giving the message that those events are not that important,” Dave explains.

That changes as children get older. “When my children were involved in high school and college they were fully committed to the team, and if that interrupted church activities, we understood that. Where I have more concern is the things that are out of season and non-related to the high school and the college setting,” Dave reasons.

In the book, Margot and Dave directly address a number of myths about youth sports with tips about how parents can respond.

Dave does feel there seems to be a bit of a pendulum swing. More parents are asking questions about youth sports involvement, and interested in alternate programs for younger children. “Whenever I travel around to speak, they say, ‘Thank you for opening it up and discussing it and taking away the guilt that I feel about not involving my child, or that I can put limitations on it.’” He notes there is a “political” game in some communities where if you don’t participate or are not selected for the club programs, you’re probably not going to be on the high school team. If that’s the roadblock families are up against, Dave admits that’s difficult and “the only answer I give is for parents to look at the bigger picture of where do you want your son or daughter to be when they’re 25 or 35—not so much where they are in the high school.”

Why does Dave speak out? “When I see the number of student athletes who quit playing when they get to college because they are burnt out, who have beat up their body for so many years, and they tell me they would have quit earlier but they knew their parents couldn’t deal with it, then I begin to say something is out of whack.”

At least one major league baseball player, Erik Kratz, a catcher for  the San Diego Padres agrees with the message Margot and Dave give in “Overplayed.” “I have been every one of the possible roles discussed in this book: professional, amateur, kid who got cut from the team, and parent of children currently in youth sports. “Overplayed” will help parents currently involved in youth sports and parents soon to begin the journey.”

Melodie Davis is editor of Valley Living, and previously interviewed Dave King for the radio program, Shaping Families. One interview can be heard and read at

“Overplayed: A Parent’s Guide to Sanity in the World of Youth Sports” can be purchased from 800-245-7894; if you live in the Harrisonburg area, you can order it by phone and pick it up at Herald Press to save postage costs. Or ask for it in a local bookstore, or find online at:


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