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Youth Sports: More Active Role for Moms Needed

Puzzling Absence of Women As Coaches Criticized As Backward Tradition

Backward tradition

In days gone by, mothers were the primary guardians of children at their children at play - hanging out a city window to check on their kids playing stickball in the street below, or looking into the backyard to monitor a group of ten-year-olds playing touch football.

Today, more often than not, mothers are no longer directly responsible for their child's safety at play. Instead, they are sitting in the stands at their child's youth baseball game, working behind the concession counter, selling snacks and raffle tickets; working as team parents; or reduced to chauffeuring their kids to and from practice and games.

A recent study revealed that only 13.4% of the 1,490 head coaches of American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) teams in an 8-year period were women, and less than half that number (5.9%) were coaches of Little League baseball or softball teams.  Nearly all of the team parent positions were held by women.

The absence of women as coaches in youth sports prompted Scott Lancaster, the director of the National Football League's youth football development program, to note in his book, Fair Play: Making Organized Sports a Great Experience for Your Kid, to label it "clearly one of the most backward traditions in sports today."

Concerns of mothers

Yet mothers, just because they are mothers, don't stop worrying about their children's physical and emotional well-being and safety when they turn them over to the fathers who coach youth sports. Many of the e-mails I receive at MomsTeam are from mothers who wake up at 3:00 in the morning worried sick about what sports are doing not only to their kids, but to themselves, and asking for advice about what, if anything, they can do about it.

The e-mails suggest that:

  • Many mothers are struggling to find ways to have their voices heard so that youth sports will reflect not only the values and concerns of men but their own values and concerns as well.

  • Despite the enactment of the Title IX, the federal law mandating that girls be given the same athletic opportunities as boys, many mothers have been told that they don't know enough about sports to warrant moving from the stands to the coaching sidelines or on to a club's board of directors.

  • Mothers know intuitively that they should be doing everything possible to protect their children from the pressures of the adult world; and yet, many mothers are afraid their children will be ostracized if they criticize the status quo and try to protect their children against a runaway youth sports system that injures and unfairly classifies and excludes more and more kids each year.

  • Many mothers are getting sucked into the crazy vortex of competitive youth sports, where survival virtually requires that they become overly focused on and invested in their children's success in sports.

Making youth sports fun again

From the e-mail I have received at MomsTeam, from my conversations with mothers all across the country, including the mothers of many Olympic athletes, the vast majority of mothers (and many fathers) just want to make youth sports fun again. They want to know that their children will be protected against injury and abuse and given a chance to play until they graduate high school and that the program in which they enroll their children will protect them and keep them safe while they are entrusted to its care. It isn't just the safety of our own children we care about; as mothers we care about the well-being of all children.

Many believe that it is time to challenge the assumption that, for better or worse, a competition in youth sports be defined solely in terms of winning and losing, and displays of power, dominance, and control. Instead, many of us want our children to learn that while competition is healthy and necessary (at least after they have developed a mature understanding of what competition means, around age twelve), a successful competition is one where all players do their best and respect their teammates, opponents, and the rules.

Missing piece of youth sports puzzle

I am also convinced that many mothers see themselves as the missing piece in the youth sports puzzle, that they believe that the culture of youth sports would improve if it celebrated the values of women as much as men. I believe that mothers can inspire coaches, parents, athletic directors, school boards, and local and national youth sports organizations to do more to keep children safe, to balance competition with cooperation, and to think about sports not just as a place to showcase the gifted and talented but as a place where all children can begin a love affair with sports and physical exercise lasting a lifetime, instead of ending, as too often is the case, in early adolescence.

Women, particularly mothers, as Scott Lancaster noted in Fair Play, are "the greatest untapped resource in youth sports." The 42 million mothers of kids in sports represent an incredible resource.

Perhaps if that resources was tapped, a new paradigm for youth sports can grow: one that will ensure that our children's sports years are more fun, safer, saner, less stressful, and more inclusive from the first day of T-ball to the last high school game.


Adapted from Brooke de Lench's book, Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins 2006). Brooke de Lench is the founder of MomsTeam.

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