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I played basketball for several years as a boy with a big, tall kid who was pretty decent. His dad always talked about how he’d be playing at a big-time college one day, and was a fixture at all our games.
But pretty early on in high school it became apparent my friend didn’t have actually much future in basketball; he’d stopped growing early and it was clear his skills would never catch up to compensate.
Around this same time, my friend’s boastful dad fell out of his son’s life. It was sad to see, and painful for my friend.
Now, with kids heading back to school, a summer study confirms what anyone who’s spent time coaching youth teams could easily tell you themselves: Too many high school sports parents are completely and totally deluded.
More than a quarter of parents — the precise figure is 26% — with high school-aged athletes hope their kids go on to play professional sports, according to a study by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The study also found that, the lower a parent’s income and education level, the higher likelihood of them harboring such dreams.
Now, there are different types of hope. There’s the kind where a parent says, "Little Johnny sure loves playing ball and is pretty good and enjoys it and it gives him self-confidence and a sense of identity. I hope he even makes the pros one day!" This is a lot like hoping you win the lottery; it’s a big longshot but technically possible, and holding out some hope for a jackpot doesn’t effect your day-to-day life.
Then there’s the other kind of hope. The poisonous kind of hope.
The poisonous kind of hope is the kind exhibited by my friend’s dad. He didn’t hope his kid played big-time college ball. He wanted him to. He was genuinely positive he would. He, on some self-validating level, probably even needed him to. When it became apparent this wasn’t ever going to be the case, he bounced.
Countless similar stories litter the high school sports landscape, even if dad doesn’t up and leave. Maybe a parent makes their kid feel like a failure when he or she doesn’t live up to realistic sports expectations. Maybe a parent lets academic work and preparation slide because making the big leagues is a given.
But the real stats are much more grim
Merkel High School football players stretch during the first practice of the season, Monday, Aug. 3, 2015, in Merkel, Texas.
Image: Tommy Metthe/The Abilene Reporter-News via AP/Associated Press
A closer look at the numbers, though, shows just how unreasonable it is to pin any sort of real hope on your kid making the pros one day. Straight from the official NCAA website:
More than 480,000 boys play high school baseball, and just 6.9% of them will go on to play in college. Of the ones who do, just 8.6% will get drafted by Major League Baseball teams.
More than 540,000 boys play high school basketball. Just 3.4% of them will play in college. Of the ones who do play in college, only 1.2% will be drafted by NBA teams.
More than 430,000 girls play high school basketball. Just 3.8% of them will play in college. Of the ones who do play in college, only 0.9% will be drafted by WNBA teams.
More than 1 million kids play high school football. Just 6.5% of them will play in college. Of the ones who do play in college, only 1.6% will be drafted by NFL teams.
More than 415,000 boys play high school soccer. Just 5.7% of them will play in college. Of the ones who do play in college, only 1.4% will be drafted by Major League Soccer teams.
As you’ve no doubt noticed by now, none of those final numbers resemble anything remotely in the neighborhood of the hopeful 26% figure cited by the NPR and Harvard study.
The study — which looks at many aspects of sports and health — was conducted among a "nationally representative probability sample of 2,506 respondents age 18 and older." It was originally released in June but began gaining traction this week after being written up in the New York Times and the Washington Post.
That the study is a few months old and contained a relatively small sample size of parents of teenage athletes are potential caveats. But, with school starting up again, it’s worth sharing here as yet further proof of one of the oldest cliches in the youth coaching handbook: "It’s called student-athlete for a reason, not athlete-student."
And — for the love of God — don’t ditch your kid if it turns out they can’t fulfill your own athletic hopes. That’s not a sporting thing to do.
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