It's a natural desire for parents to support their child's dreams, no matter the cost. But experts say there are ways parents can make their kids' participation in sports more positive and avoid sacrificing their own financial security.
—ENCOURAGE MULTIPLE SPORTS: Parents are often told that a child with potential should participate in intense or year-round programs to build that skill. But studies show early specialization does more harm than good. It increases the risk of overuse in developing bodies, causes kids to burn out on sports and decreases overall athletic development, according to Aspen Institute's Project Play, an effort to make sports accessible to all.
—COMMUNICATE REGULARY: Check in with kids about what they really want to do. Some crave a competitive environment and others don't want to be pushed into that pipeline, says Travis Dorsch, founding director of the Families in Sport Lab at Utah State University. It's often parents, not kids, that find and suggest these elite teams, he said. And children, attuned to underlying messages, often provide answers based on what the parents want to hear. He suggests checking with kids weekly, monthly and seasonally to make sure they are still having fun and engaged.
—SUPPORT FREE PLAY: Forget practice and drills — engaging in free or loosely structured play is important, says Tom Farrey of the Aspen Institute. Kid-led activities are important in making sports fun and building creativity. Need convincing? Farrey points out that free play was important to athletes like Michael Jordan and Brazilian soccer stars who played pickup games in their neighborhoods.
—MANAGE EXPECTATIONS: Odds are against a child going to the Olympics, going pro or even playing in college. That's no reflection on the parents. Sociologist Jay Coakley says many parents have been conditioned to view their child's achievements — at school, on the field or elsewhere — as a measure of their worth as a parent. Parents should recognize what messages they are listening to internally when making decisions. He suggests providing children with an array of experiences and some autonomy to pursue and enjoy whatever their interests are.
—DON'T DISMISS ACADEMICS: Parents who really want their kid to get college paid for should get a biology tutor, not a sports coach, says Mark Hyman of George Washington University. Academics might be compromised for intense training, but school studies provide more opportunity for scholarships and are important to lifelong success.
—REMEMBER FINANCIAL NEEDS: Parents need to pay the bills each month and have a nest egg when they retire. It's not bad to spend on sports or even elite teams, but athletic and financial experts say parents need to find what works for their lives. As much as parents are committed to their kids and their dreams, they should be committed to their own financial prospects.