This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's July 8, Kids In Sports issue. Subscribe today!
This spring, The Magazine sent out six correspondents to round up parents of a very specific age group: 9 to 13 years old. Why those ages? Because we figured by then kids have stopped chasing butterflies and started chasing travel-team glory, a shift that in the popular imagination turns scores of American sports parents into deranged yellers, stressed-out basket cases -- or possibly both.
The results were surprisingly low blood pressure. In interviews with 340 parents across 24 states and 15 different sports, there was plenty of the expected mom and dad nuttiness. But we also found that the majority of parents have not witnessed lunacy in the stands, and they feel as if youth sports improve family dynamics and academics. In fact, many regard their kids' sports leagues as a kind of adhesive to the strained and busy life of parents in the year 2013. "We're always running around trying to make ends meet, while at the same time taking kids all over the place for sports," says one New York dad. "So my wife and I don't sit down together very often. When we do, it's at baseball and softball fields, and it's very nice."
Overall, 53 percent of respondents say youth sports have strengthened their marriages, with only 23 percent feeling that youth sports were putting a strain on their family. A whopping 84 percent believe that athletic participation has actually improved their child's grades. "We've struggled with my son sticking to a schedule with his schoolwork," says a California mom. "But sports has narrowed his time to the point where he has an hour to do his homework after practice, and he cares enough about sports that he knows he needs to use that hour to get his work done. His grades are better than they've ever been."
Respondents also shot down another part of the cliched portrait of the sports parent—fences lined with overbearing moms and dads trying to live their own athletic dreams through their kids. There definitely was a hint of that in the results, but nothing like you'd imagine. Only 17 percent of parents think they enjoy the sport more than their child does, and 65 percent answered false when asked, "True or false: If I made a list of highlights from my life, my kid's athletic success would be at the top."
Of course, it also wasn't hard to find stories of insanity from the fields and courts of American kids sports. Start with delusions of future success. A whopping 32 percent think there's a good chance little Johnny or Jamie is going to receive a D1 scholarship someday. Another 11 percent say their kid has a good chance of eventually going pro. According to NCAA data from the six major sports (men's and women's basketball, men's ice hockey, men's soccer, football and baseball), those parents are overly optimistic, to put it mildly. For prep athletes hoping for a college scholarship, those numbers range from a low of 3.3 percent (men's hoops) to a high of 10.9 percent (hockey) -- a fraction of what our surveys showed. For parents with pro dreams for their kid, the disparity is even bigger. Prep baseball players have a 0.51 percent chance of getting paid to play, while the other five sports are at 0.1 percent or lower. "I know it's early, but my son has been dominant for five years now," says a Florida baseball dad of his boy, 11. "It's his lifelong dream, and he works his butt off to get there. And I think he will someday."
About one-third of our survey takers (31 percent, to be exact) have seen a physical confrontation between parents at a game, 28 percent say they've seen kids they believe to be lying about their age, and 16 percent feel they've witnessed an injured child playing when he or she should be sitting out. "I can't believe how many of these questions I am answering yes to," one alarmed Ohio mom responded. "Sports have been wonderful for me and my family, but like once a year you'll see something that makes you think all parents are nuts."