Rethinking youth fitness (part 1)

Posted on January 4, 2016

(Last Updated On: May 20, 2017)

This is a seven part series.

Preface to the preface

I love sports. I grew up playing a ton of them. I played at a pretty high level in college (small d-1 football). My girlfriend played at an even higher level than I did (pitcher at Oklahoma; played in College World Series as a freshman). We both continue to watch sports a good amount. Particularly the most violent one, the NFL. I write about them a decent amount too.

This is not meant to be anti-sports, although it may come across that way. It’s meant to reconsider how we approach youth sports and activity.


I’m at an age where a lot of young kids are around me. Just through my girlfriend, she has seven nieces and nephews, all under 10 years old. (It’s not the chaos you would imagine. It’s more!) At 29, a lot of people around me have young kids or are in the process of having kids. I have a close friend who works with elementary schools too, as does my girlfriend’s sister.

Inevitably, fitness conversations pop up with kids nowadays. Inevitably, this translates to sports.

The thesis of this article is youth fitness does not have to equal sports. That making it such may have consequences we don’t think of.

This is more anecdotal than anything else. I’ve cited some research on this stuff before, like the drinking behavior of college athletes, but I’m going to ignore that here.

It’s essentially a few discussions my girlfriend and I have had. As we’ve discussed kids, we’ve gone back and forth on how we feel about youth sports. A lot of this is based on our experiences playing, but it’s also based on the countless teammates we had. Coincidentally, her and I were also both camp counselors for summer jobs, where sports are a big focus. We’ve been around a lot of kids, and a lot of sports. This is not bragging, but reality- the fact we’re a couple who both played a college sport at the division I level is very rare. The fact we both decided to voluntarily stop playing by our sophomore year is even more rare. So, I think there may be some different perspectives in this. Perspectives I don’t believe I’ve seen addressed before, nor do I think most parents have in their thought process.

You’re probably done when you hit 18

We’ll start with some numbers I’ve used before. In high school a teammate and I received letters from the NCAA. It was national signing day and we had signed with a small division 1 school to play football. The letter stated “Congratulations on playing college sports. You are part of the 5% of high school football players who will also get to play in college.”

Five percent.

Furthermore, we were playing division 1. (Largely the only division where you have a prayer of playing professionally.) What do you think the percentage of high school football players who play division 1 is? Maybe 1 or 2%?

-> This is not only relevant for those wanting to go pro, but also for parents who think an athletic scholarship is the ticket to college. It’s a hell of a lot easier to get into college through good grades than through athletic performance. In terms of admission, grades just need to be decent, where athletic performance needs to be extraordinary.

And my teammate, who was also my roommate, was a much better athlete than me. In high school he won the state long jump competition as well as made all state for football. You know Odell Beckham Jr? One of the most popular NFL players right now? My roommate was as fast as him and jumped further than him in the long jump. But you know what? My roommate and I were average compared to athletes at a big program, like USC or Oklahoma. I know because I played against a bunch of guys like that in high school. Guys who, on a high school football field, looked like 40 year olds who ate babies in their spare time. (My roommate was a couple inches shorter and 15 pounds lighter than Beckham, and a lot of guys run that fast at a big school. Plus, you need the athletic ability and the sport specific skill. My roommate could run like Beckham. He couldn’t catch a football like him.)

What do you think the percentage of high school football players who play at a top 25 school is?

Let’s say there are 100 players on each college team, 25 of which are freshman.

25 freshman on each time * 25 teams = 625 high school seniors become freshman at big time football programs.

-> Largely the only ones who will get full scholarships!

According to the NCAA there are 316,697 seniors playing high school football.

625 freshman football players at big time programs  / 316,697 high school senior football players  = .002%

By the way, this is merely making it on a team. It in no way means you get to play in college! Even if you make this level, chances are you don’t play at this level. 22 guys start on a team. Maybe 35 get meaningful playing time. A big time program often has at least 75 guys on the roster…

Good luck getting past 22 years old

How many total college players make it to the professional level? 1.7%

How many total high school players make it to the professional level? .08%.

And I’m not going to harp on it in this post, but the reality is to get to the professional level, drugs are going to come into play at some point. Maybe not for all players in all sports, but we’re all progressively realizing how much sports play a role in the level of performance we see on television.

So ask yourself this, if you are not willing to, or as a parent, if you are not wanting your kid, to do drugs, should you be bothering with trying to make it to the pros? Should you be bothering with the level of seriousness you’re giving the sport?

Actually, you’re probably done by 14

The above assumes you’re even good enough to start on a high school team. To be part of the .08% of high school players who make it pro, you have to be part of the percentage who gets on a high school field.

My girlfriend was a softball pitcher. If you haven’t watched much softball, the pitching is different than baseball. In softball one pitcher can dominate not just a game, but a season. Due to the different (underhand) throwing delivery, you don’t have to wait so long between starts. It was common for my girlfriend to pitch 2-3 full games in the same day. She had times she did four or five.

My girlfriend went to a high school with close to 2000 people. We’ll say 1000 girls. Do you know what 999 girls in that high school, for four years, would for all intents and purposes never do? Pitch in a softball game. You had to be better than my girlfriend, and nobody was.

The fun element becomes secondary for all athletes at some point. Sometimes this is at 5 years old due to lunatic parents. Regardless, it happens to us all by high school. The notion of “everybody gets to play” dies. So, at my girlfriend’s high school, there was one pitcher.

Just in this one high school, you needed to be 1 out of 1000, or in the top 0.001 percent (a tenth of one percent), just to get on the mound. We are talking modern darwinism here to the fullest extent.

-> The numbers are actually worse than this. This is an under-appreciated aspect of spring sports:

-She’s a freshman and there are 750 other girls in the school, not including her class.

-She’s a senior and there are 750 other girls in the school, not including her class.

=> 750+750+249 (her own class) = 1749 girls my girlfriend went to high school with.

During the four years she was there, 1749 girls never pitched. In her own words, “unless it was a blowout or something.” Sure, some got to pitch after she graduated. But say you’re a junior when my girlfriend is a senior. By the time you get to pitch as a senior, which is in the spring, all the college recruiting is done!

-750 other girls when my girlfriend is a freshman,

-> As soon as she steps on campus, the sophomores, juniors and seniors, never pitch again.

-249 girls from her own class,

-> The girls in her own class never pitch.

-250 girls from the class below her when she is a senior,

-> These girls may get to pitch after she leaves, but all the college recruiting is done by then. Not to mention they’ll have basically no experience pitching in a game by the time they do get to pitch.

=>  1249 girls who had no shot at pitching in college.

=> 1 out of 1249 = 0.0008 or 0.08%.

What’s ironic about this is my girlfriend doesn’t even think of it in these terms. To her, playing in college was like, “that’s easy. Now once I got to Oklahoma, that was a different story. But who isn’t good enough to make it to college?” She forgets the 1249 other girls she never allowed to get on the mound! The 1249 other girls who felt the way she did about college, but by middle school.

What’s even worse? Look at the percentage my girlfriend fit into. Realistically, the percentage is even smaller, because she could have gone to most high schools and done the same thing.

And guess what? She stopped by her second year of college, and it didn’t matter how much of an outlier she was, you can’t make a living pitching a softball. Which is the reality of most sports- you can’t make a living, especially not a career, doing it.

Of course, sports don’t always have to be so serious. You may see the above and think, “That’s fine. I’m just doing the sport to be active. It’s more about the practices than the games.” Or if you’re a parent, “I’m not expecting my kid to be a professional. I just want them doing something active. Plus, there are a lot of other benefits to sports. Camaraderie, teamwork…” Sure there are. There’s also…[Part 2: The injury factor]

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