Book 38 of 52: Why Johnny Hates Sports: Why Organized Youth Sports are Failing Our Children and What We Can Do About It by Fred Engh

I ran my first race two summers ago. I’d never been a runner, but I trained with a coach and wrote about it for a national fitness magazine. It’s one of the most difficult assignments I’ve ever done because it was throwing a non-runner into a training program, but it was obviously worth it since I’m still running today.

I did well that day — I placed second in my age bracket and was awarded a mug and a $5 gift certificate to Macho Taco. But what stands out more than anything at the awards ceremony is a little girl who picked up her award for winning her age bracket. I think she was eight years old, and she had incredibly buff arms, so much so that the people behind me whispered in awe about her physical fitness.

Welcome to the age of professionalized kids sports, which is one of the many topics covered in Fred Engh’s Why Johnny Hates Sports. He writes at length about how this has happened; why parents and coaches encourage it; and how we can change this trend. I’m working on a much bigger project about topics one and two, and as much as I’d like to believe that the advice he gives through this book and his work as president of the National Alliance for Youth Sports is going to change things, I haven’t seen anything getting better. I’ve only seen it getting worse, as more people are willing to drop thousands of dollars into making sure their daughters have buff arms, for example. After all, Velocity, a chain of sports training facilities, accepts children as young as eight years old.

And why shouldn’t parents invest in their children’s sports abilities if the financial rewards could be college scholarships, and big bucks pro sports deals? Simple. First, because the chance of a kid getting a big cash payout for sports is incredibly slim. Second, because we’re talking about kids here, and no matter how much promise your pre-teen shows on the soccer field, baseball diamond or basketball court, how much can that undeveloped body and mind take before it breaks?

This is a topic that hits close to home because I’m one of those kids who suffered two things that Engh writes about: permanent injury and burn out. By my senior year of high school when I was captain of the softball team, the last place I wanted to be wason the softball field, not only because I was tired of the sport, but also because I was hurt. I’d torn the labrum in my throwing shoulder, an injury I developed from throwing the ball from home to center field without a cut off. Years later, when I finally stopped trying to grit through the pain and saw a doctor about the injury, he said that what was seen as incredibly fielding ability is something that no 125 pound, 17 year old girl could do without seriously hurting herself. Throw on the nerve damage I also suffered, and you’ve got a 27 year old with a permanent injury that keeps her from throwing anything, and from sleeping on the left side of her body most nights.

But even though I was in great pain my senior year of high school, I still played out the season and didn’t officially quit until I showed up at college the next year and didn’t try to walk onto the team. Why didn’t I stop when I first felt the pain? Because to do so would have made me a coward and a quitter. And for what?

“It is ridiculous that children are paying this very steep price as well for a piece of short-lived glory,” says Engh. “They may have helped the team with the championship or earned a shiny MVP trophy for themselves, but if it means not being able to play catch twenty years from now with their own kids, or not being able to bend over pain-free and scoop them up for a hug, it obviously isn’t worth it.”

Obviously not. Now, sitting at my desk, I couldn’t care less if I dropped that fly ball during the game versus West Deptford. I couldn’t care less whether the girl charging from third base to home plate on a passed ball scored or not, or if, even after she tore the ligaments in my ankle during that play, I returned to the play for one of the two teams I was part of that summer. I couldn’t care less if I proved myself tough and a team player by paying through the pain because, otherwise, I would lose valuable time developing my skills as a player.

Doesn’t it sound so stupid when you step back and look at it? Especially when I’m writing about myself as a teenager? I don’t think anyone ever tried to hurt me. I have to believe that my parents and coaches were trying to make me into the best ball player I could possibly be, and they ended up doing a lot of things wrong (all of which are addressed in this book).

Which brings me back to running. I shocked a lot of people, myself included, by running that first race so quickly. When my coach told me that with another few months of training I could drop my 5K time to under 20 minutes, I fired him. I didn’t want the pressure, and since then, my attachment to running has been tenuous. Whenever running starts to seem like work, like softball had been to me, I pull away and stop.

Running is a big stress relief for me. It helped me get through a devastating break up, and I solve problems in my writing while I’m out on the road, so whenever it starts to feel like a duty, I pull back.

I’ve been doing well over the last five weeks. I explained to my coach my goals and that I did not want to push myself, and I’ve done well (even though today’s run in very windy conditions wasn’t pleasant). When I got my training schedule for the next five weeks, I nearly threw it out because it looks too hard. I keep telling my coach that I’m not in this sport to compete. I hire a coach, not to compete but so I don’t hurt myself, and we sometimes argue about what to do with my so-called natural running talent. I understand that he wants me to run as fast as I can, but as someone who’s shoulder is hurting her even as she types this blog entry, I know that I can’t push myself too hard or I’ll give up.

Anyway, if you’ve got kids playing sport, this book is a must read. Hopefully it’ll get people to remember that kids are not adults, and that the goal of their sports programs should be for them to play. But as long as parents are willing to send their eight year olds to trainers, I don’t know how this cycle of keeping up with the Jonses’ through kids sports will ever stop.


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Jen Miller

Jen Miller

Jen A. Miller is a an author and freelance writer. Her memoir, Running a Love Story, was a Philadelphia Inquirer best book of the year. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, SELF, Buzzfeed and the Guardian, among others.


  1. Diane, Evan, Maia and Charlie the cat on April 22, 2008 at 10:52 pm

    Thanks for the great post. I’ll pick-up the book. You’ve confirmed my intuition – my six-year-old daughter was offered the chance to move up in her circus school to the performance level (and 12-hours of rehearsal a week.) She loves it and is good at it and I’d like it to stay that way – and for her to keep enjoying being a six-year-old…

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