Taking Back Fall

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Way, way above the landfill.

Last year I spent the most spectacular weekend of fall standing around on a landfill. I was not alone. Many parents were there too, watching our many children chase soccer balls back and forth across said landfill, and a host of other once-barren areas that had been repurposed into mega soccer complexes. These fields are needed to accommodate the seemingly bottomless rosters of young soccer players, many of whom were in the process of kicking my sons’ teams’ butts—butts, that had been sitting in cars for hours for just this opportunity to be kicked.

As I stood there—like many other parents, not-so-secretly hoping my sons’ teams would not advance to the final day of play—one word kept blinking in my mind: “Why?” I promised myself then that things would be different this year. This year our family would “take back fall.”

Taking back fall, regaining balance, meant ratcheting back on organized sports to make room for unorganized time with friends and family. Soccer would be a part of fall, but would not dominate it.

Let me make it clear that I do not blame soccer for snaring me in what had come to feel like a hostage situation. I blame myself for having joined the masses of parents who fuel the escalation of youth sports. This escalation involves encouraging kids, at ever-younger ages, to specialize in a particular sport, to compete in multiple sports per season and to travel well beyond their communities in search of a higher level of competition.

To be sure, I have some issues with soccer, the original one being that I was never any good at it. Additionally, I tend to like underdogs, be they people or pursuits. Among youth sports, soccer is no underdog. Rather, because it can be played indoors and out, on virtually any field and with minimal equipment, soccer has become the go-to sport for each season. In the words of another mom, “Ah, soccer games, soccer practice, soccer travel. When those infants were placed in the crooks of our arms, they should have just wedged in soccer balls instead…”

But soccer is merely the symptom not the disease, the leading indicator of the troubling side effects brought on by our more-is-better approach to youth sports. In a culture that seems hell-bent on over scheduling everything from play dates to music lessons, it’s not unusual for very young children—we’re talking elementary school age—to play two or even more sports per season. Kids who show an interest or aptitude for a particular sport are encouraged to pursue it through pre-season workouts and post season tournaments, to play it two, three or even four seasons in a row.

Indeed, in many sports the term “off-season” has become a quaint anachronism. I guess I’m old school because I believe in one sport a season. I believe it is a rare child who can pull off any more than that with much success, and an even rarer child who can benefit from it. My son had a baseball coach who, when passing a soccer field on a lazy May day, would shout out the window, “That’s a fall sport!” The kids laughed and the coach said it with good humor, but with conviction. There is something sacred about the seasonality of sports, and something healthy too. Even if one or more of those seasons is a crazy sprint to the tape with barely time to breathe, it, and it’s unique kind of stress, ends.

One leading pediatric orthopedist, who spends much of his time treating stress fractures, shinsplints, tendonitis and other (largely preventable) overuse injuries once rare among kids laments, “I wish they would banish the words ‘elite’ and ‘premier’ from kids sports altogether.” Leagues or programs thus described are often linked not only to overuse injuries—caused by too many consecutive seasons in one sport, too many sports in one season or too much intensity for still-developing bodies—but also to a career-ending condition that the injury statistics don’t track: burnout.

How many kids leave a sport altogether because they don’t make the A team in 5th grade?; or are tired of juggling school, homework and sports 5-7 days/week, every week, in middle school?; or feel like they’re always playing catch-up if they “only” play their sport in-season? What are the chances kids will achieve their potential, or even productivity, with that kind of schedule?

The slight whiff of both overuse injuries and burnout in our own kids, as well as our parental fear that we might be contributing to them, factored heavily into our decision to “Take Back Fall.” Spending a spectacular fall day on a landfill merely pushed us over the edge, and reminded us that our time to enjoy fall at home together is finite and precious.

We opted in to the local rec league, in which the absence of any “pre-season” allowed us to ease into school without stress. We spent our mostly free Saturdays and entirely free Sundays hiking, biking and generally enjoying the great outdoors on no particular schedule. Any butt-kicking was received or dispensed at scenic fields within 30 miles of our home, which saved on gas and allowed us to enjoy things like home-baked apple cheddar scones at the kitchen table instead of the Dunkin Donuts #4 in the car. As one of my sons reflected, “I didn’t mind losing so much last year. I just minded going all the way to Massachusetts to do it.”

Even more than the sheer hassle of travel is the perversity of spending more hours in the car getting to an activity than your kid spends engaged in the activity itself. Toss in the deleterious effects of a DD #4 routine and it sort of negates the whole point of “activity.”

Time was the biggest bonus of the deal. The kids had time to do important things like finishing homework and reading, as well as building a street luge out of scrap, resurrecting a long-forgotten zipline and rediscovering the joy of spontaneous touch football games. They hadn’t picked up a football since giving up “serious” football in third and fifth grade.

Ironically, in easing up on soccer the sport became fun again, for all of us. The kids started kicking the ball around the yard with each other “just for fun.” Instead of bolting from one field to the next and choreographing carpools, I had time to linger and watch other kids’ games, to observe the workouts, and, finally, to realize why I hated soccer as a kid: I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. I learned more this year listening and watching kids and coaches who were engaged and energized than I ever did playing.

For us, taking back fall isn’t about dissing any one sport, but about enjoying as many sports as we can, at the level that works for us, for as long as possible. By the time kids are through middle school, in an eyeblink, they will likely have chosen a main sport or two, and those seasons will ooze both directions, obscuring all others. The longer we can stave off that point of no return, the better.

This year we kicked off the long Columbus Day weekend, New England’s fall showcase, in a White Mountain hut with good friends and eager kids, whose “main” sports range from soccer to baseball to hockey to skiing. All took a time-out from their sports schedules to get together and do something neither elite, nor premier, nor competitive in any way. It beat the landfill hands down.

November’s grayness will soon close around us and when the snow flies we will embark on the nuttiness of our family’s crazy season, ski season. But this winter we’re going in fully charged from fall.