Autumn is upon us and with it, the surge of fall youth league sports.

It took our peculiar American culture to transform the most basic of all youthful endeavors – play – into an almost corporate-style, life-encompassing endeavor. Generations ago, children would gather on playgrounds, vacant lots, pasture fields, or most any available level surface to form their own teams and compete for the pure fun of it.

Now we have leagues sponsored by the parks and recreation divisions of local governments. We also have countless associations that create and oversee ‘travel’ teams that ignore community boundaries and pull their players from different communities, counties, even from all across the country.

All in the name of giving our youth the best opportunities available to develop their athletic abilities.

Please understand. I have no axe to grind with well-organized, responsibly-coached youth teams. Our sons played multiple youth sports. Our youngest still plays on a travel team as well as the high school varsity team for his chosen sport.

I do, however, take issue with the parents, coaches, and other involved individuals who spend inordinate amounts of time, energy, and effort attempting to wring professional levels of performance from young children.

Parents sometimes unwittingly fall in love with their children’s abilities, and human beings naturally demonstrate their physical skills much more rapidly than their mental skills. After all, we’re up walking around and displaying all kinds of physical dexterity long before we can typically communicate with little more than grins, grunts, and growls.

I clearly remember the tremendous joy I felt when our youngest was easily swatting a plastic baseball with a wiffle bat well before he was putting sentences together. “Just one signing bonus. That’s all I ask,” I said to myself, dreaming of his future as a professional baseball player.

But as children make their way through year after year of youth league and travel sports, a pair of strange transformations often takes place. Parental expectations go up as the child’s skills level off, or even decline. Tragedy ensues when the parents can no longer realistically view their own children’s abilities. Some parents see their children as eventual professional athletes merely waiting for an agent or scout to drop by. Some see their children as the perfect means to regain their own glory days, or perhaps have glory days they never experienced on their own.

Having helped coach a few teams and served on a governing board in my time, I’ve often heard parents and coaches say of a player, “That kid’s big. He/She’s going to be good.” Very often, the kid turns out to only be big. An athlete’s physical size does not always directly correlate with their ability level.

I remember one particularly painful example during a Little League baseball game. A new pitcher took the mound, made a few warmup throws, then faced his first batter. A rather large boy for his age, this young player was carefully trying to throw strikes. The ball wasn’t traveling very fast, but it was near the plate, which is all any Little League coach ever hopes for. Unfortunately, the player’s father began to coach from the stands.

“You can throw harder than that! Throw harder!”

So, the young pitcher began to throw harder. Proper technique was quickly overwhelmed by a display of raw power. As he threw harder, the ball sailed farther and farther from the plate. Before long, the young pitcher was heaving the ball nearly halfway up the backstop all the while his father continued to demand that the boy throw harder.

Over the years, I’ve watched hundreds of pee-wee or sandlot football games. Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of these games I have repeatedly witnessed has been what I call the “wonder kid” offense. I’m sure you’ve seen it as well. One kid – who’s likely one of the best athletes on the team – carries the ball every play, all game long. After no more than a handful of plays, the opposing team completely forgets any defensive strategy they may have practiced all week, and simply focuses all their efforts on tackling this one kid.

At the end of these games, whether the team wins or loses, the wonder kid is usually exhausted, and far more likely to have bumps, bruises, and other injuries than anyone else on the team. Some teammates may look upon this player with admiration for his obviously superior skill. Others will look upon him with little more than jealousy or disdain.

The lesson most players take away from such an experience is not one of teamwork, cooperation, or good sportsmanship. They learn that some people are simply more deserving of opportunity than they are, and no great amount of effort on their part will change that.

The example holds true across all sports. Some baseball teams have the one kid who always gets to pitch, play shortstop, and bat cleanup. The coach’s favored future star always takes the most shots on the basketball court. Guess who the main striker is for the soccer team, or skating wing for the hockey team?

As the youth league years give way to the varsity years and then college rolls around, the athletes parents thought they were raising fade into the mists of yesterday. Time and maturity can be merciless in the changes they impose on our minds and bodies. Those fleet-footed, uncatchable running backs from the sandlot days somehow transform into heavy-footed linemen who no longer really care for football. The amazing sprinters we rapturously watched from the sidelines now stand alongside us cheering for their friends.

And what are we parents to do with these former future stars? What are we to do with these never-weres? We’re to love them and cherish them for being human beings. For being our sons and daughters who have so much more to contribute to life than swatting a ball with a stick or barreling over children not so large or strong as they are.

It’s been estimated that somewhere around one high school football player in 65 will go on to play college football on scholarship. Beyond that, roughly one out of 100 college players will have a chance to play professionally. A player’s odds of actually having a three year career in professional football is somewhere around one in 50,000.

The chances of our young stars winning gold of any kind are exceedingly slim. However, with dedicated support from parents who place at least as much emphasis on academics as they do sports, and help their kids explore career options related to their passions and interests, the chances of earning gold – developing a successful career and life – are all in their favor.

Encourage your children to play sports. They can establish great friendships through competition. They can experience the awesome power of knowing what teamwork can truly accomplish. They can have fun. But don’t allow the momentary glory of a child’s skill level to blind you to what is truly most important: the social and mental development that comes from healthy sports.

Play should remain play.