Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Kids' Recreational Sports Leagues

So here in the 'burbs, there can be a lot of social pressure to spend money in ways we don't need or want to.  I promised I'd share some real life examples.  Here is one that I constantly find frustrating.  It comes in the context of the recreational sports leagues we sign our kids up for.

Let me back up by saying that my husband and I were never jocks.  But we appreciate the role of athletics in helping kids to grow and learn.  Beyond giving them exercise to be healthy, organized sports teaches them all kinds of great lessons.  Team work.  Perseverance.  Setting goals.  Leadership.  Hard work.  Slow improvement over time.  Empathy.  Respect for others.  For these and other reasons, we have long had our kids in community sports programs for soccer, basketball, volleyball and swimming. 

The cost is typically not that bad because they are run by the cities where we've lived and we get a resident discount.  For the most part, these have been great experiences.  Our kids have learned a lot each time. 

But there are hidden costs in many cases.  Most are socially instigated by other parents.  Let me share some examples.  If you are a parent, this may be familiar to you.

(1) Team Photos.  As I was never in organized sports as a kid, this one caught me off-guard.  But every single team my kids have been on has had a designated picture day.  We all have to get to the field or pool an hour or more early to wait around and then get our picture taken.  There are typically group and individual photos.  The first few times we ordered a modest package of photos.  We did this for two main reasons.  First, we had more income in those days and it wasn't that big a deal to us.  Second, everyone else was doing it and we didn't want to look cheap.  Note that neither reason involved wanting the darned pictures.  We can take our own darn pictures, thank you very much.  I never like cheesy, staged photos anyhow. 

But one year, during the height of the Great Recession, I noticed a single mom of one of my daughter's teammates was holding her kid back, he was the only one on the team not participating in photos.  From some basic stuff the mom had previously shared, it didn't take a genius to figure out they didn't have a lot of money.  Professional photos from the soccer season weren't in the budget.  I felt profoundly sad that that mom and her child seemed to be embarrassed to be the odd ones out and their lack of funds was the cause of that.  That was the last time we ordered the photos from one of my kids' sports teams. 

We still always dutifully show up for the team photo, but we don't take the individual photos.  We could afford them.  But there are always opportunity costs with every purchase.  There are other things I'd rather do with our money than buy overpriced, staged photos. 

And normally I am second to none in my admiration and support of small businesses.  But I take exception when it comes to the professional photographers that take these team pictures.  All the parents feel guilted into buying a package.  It is an extortive way to make a living and doesn't provide much (if any) social good.

(2) Snacks.  I don't know if it has always been this way, but ever since my kids began participating in organized sports, there is an unwritten rule that the kids must be rewarded with a snack after the game.  Heck, sometimes, the unwritten rule says they also get one at half time!  The only exception seems to be swim team.  But that is probably only because food is not allowed by the pool.

Occasionally a coach will strongly recommend that the snacks be fresh fruit.  But usually the parents buy whatever they want and the snacks are highly processed, high in sugar and/or fat.  The kids get cookies, potato chips, snack bars, etc. to eat.  Along with sugary punch or sports drinks. 

We live in a hot climate, so I'm down with orange wedges or grapes at half time.  But anything else, I find wasteful and counterproductive.  There is a childhood obesity epidemic.  A lot of the kids on the sports teams are a bit pudgy. Occasionally a teammate is obese and has trouble even participating. 

In light of the reality, I don't know why we insist in filling kids with empty calories after they just burned some off.  And the snacks are typically processed and sold in wasteful packaging.  Just one team's post-game snack creates a lot of trash, most of it not even recyclable. 

But this is one modern tradition that I cannot get out of gracefully.  Everyone is expected to sign up to bring snack at least one game of the season.  So, I grin and bear it.  And I at least try to watch sales and get the most economical snacks I can find.

(3) Coach's Gift.  Towards the end of the season, invariably some parent takes it upon him/herself to organize a taking up of money to buy the coach a gift.  Our family tends to like to bake some homemade cookies for our kids' coaches as a more personal, less expensive gift.  Sometimes that works to gracefully get out of the group gift.  And other times, the coach has been so exceptional and the suggested donation is low enough that we chip in.  But often, the organizing parent has a particular item in mind and it is premised upon everyone chipping in a fixed amount that is higher that my husband and I think appropriate. 

It is not that we are ungrateful, far from it.  Volunteer coaches have one of their own kids on the team.  They don't volunteer to get a trophy or plaque or gift card.   I think we should always show our heartfelt appreciation for those who volunteer their time for the good of the community.  But I resent pushy parents telling others they "have" to kick in a certain amount to buy the coach a meaningless piece of junk he/she is likely going to throw in a neglected corner of his/her garage (or in his/her garbage can) before long. 

Indeed, this whole tradition is part of a wider modern phenomenon of gift giving that I find toxic.  Holidays have been distorted and others have been invented just to promote gift giving.  We are now always giving people gifts to the point that the act loses its significance.  Moreover, some come to view them as an entitlement.  Someone recently asked me, "What did your family give you for Mother's Day?"  I wasn't sure how to answer, we don't give gifts at all holidays like that.  My kids and I instead volunteered to cook a special meal for some homeless families at our church.  It was a glorious day.  Our project and the time with my kids made me very happy.

(4) Trophies.  So many people these days mock the current generation of kids and young adults because they are being raised or were raised in a culture where prizes have become meaningless.  Everyone gets a prize for showing up.  The modern mindset is that to distinguish some as better than others would hurt some kids' feelings, so everyone gets a science fair ribbon or a sports trophy.  I have a lot of sympathy for those who are disgusted with this modern approach.  But I can tell you that here in the trenches, it is mighty hard to buck this trend. 

My oldest daughter has been participating in organized sports for 7 years now.  We have an entire shelf in our home library just covered with trophies from all the teams she has been on.  She is no Mia Hamm or Brittney Griner.  She tries her best and has improved over the years.  But we're not betting on a sports scholarship for college.  Yet she has more sports trophies than we can store.  Each one was something that every player in the whole league got for just showing up.  On the last day of each season, the league organizers have to lug boxes of the darned things to the games. 

Alternately, some leagues don't provide the trophy, but invariably some parent takes it upon him/herself to organize the purchase of trophies for everyone.  My husband and I always try to resist.  It is hard because invariably we are the ONLY family not chomping at the bit to buy another trophy, and typically there is a group discount that no one gets unless 100% of the players buy a trophy. 

This season we had an experience that really blew my mind.  The parent organizing the trophies for one of my daughter's soccer team asked at the beginning of the season if parents were interested in buying one to be handed out at the last game.  My husband and I politely and immediately flagged we would not be interested.  The organizing parent thanked us for our response, but then asked a number of other times to make sure since we were apparently the only family on the entire team declining to purchase the trophy.  I explained how we already had a ton of them from all the seasons our daughter had played sports and frankly we were out of room.  But this was not enough for this gentleman.  He ended up buying an engraved trophy with our daughter's name out of his own pocket so she wouldn't be the only one without a trophy at the end of season picnic, which we couldn't even attend since we had a prior commitment.  So we have the darned trophy anyhow!  And to make matters worse, it is so huge that it doesn't even fit on the shelf with all the others.  We've had to display it more prominently on a shelf with more space.  Oy, vey!

My other daughter played volleyball in a different league this season, and that league provided trophies for all players on the last day.  I was grateful to not have to deal with the issue of paying for the burden of another trophy.  However, I found it astounding that she and her teammates got a trophy because her team had a losing season.  And not by just a smidge.  Until the last day of the season, her team had not only not won a single match, they hadn't even won a single set!  They had lost miserably in straight sets week after week after week.  But in the current climate, the first place team and the last place team "earn" the same trophy. 

Not only do I find this a waste of resources and not a prudent way to raise kids, but I am just appalled at the environmental impact.  Nothing but parental guilt keeps us holding on to all these meaningless trophies.  But at some point, they will go in the trash--even if it is not until they move out of the house and it seems more socially acceptable to get rid of them.  My kids have tons of these trophies at this point.  Think of that multiplied by all the other kids who get these darned things nationwide.  What a huge landfill need that creates! 

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