Odds Are Your Sport Playing Child Isn’t Going Pro. Now What?
Posted by Dean Holden at September 30th, 2015
by KJ Dell’Antonia, 8 September 2015
Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
Parents investing large amounts of time and money in their athletic offspring with the belief that they’re nurturing a possible professional player should take note: Odds are, you’re wrong.
But you’re not alone. An astonishing 26 percent of parents with high-school-age children who play sports hope their child will become a professional athlete one day, according to a recent poll from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The percentages are even greater among less-educated and lower-income parents: 44 percent of parents with a high school education or less and 39 percent of parents with a household income of less than $50,000 a year are dreaming of the bigs and the majors for their kids.
Those parents are deluding themselves, and possibly cheating their children out of other opportunities if they are demanding a single-minded approach to the game. The National Collegiate Athletic Association puts the real odds right up front on its website, and they’re nowhere near one in four. For baseball, only a little more than half of 1 percent of high school players who go on to play in college will be drafted by Major League Baseball (0.6 percent), and even of those, most will not ever play in the majors — only about 17 percent of draft picks play in even a single big league game. That means only about 1 in 1,000 baseball players who play in high school ever gets a chance in make it big — and the odds of becoming a real star are even smaller.
And that’s baseball. According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the odds of going from high school play and then college to become a professional baseball player are higher than those in football, men’s or women’s basketball, or men’s soccer. (The percentages for men’s ice hockey are similar to those for baseball.) Of that 26 percent of hopeful baseball parents, to stick to that example, about 98 percent will be disappointed.
Those fond parental illusions would be fine if sports were free and childhood endless. We could chase all the dreams we wanted to if the pursuit didn’t take limited resources away from other things. Consider the impact of a sports season on the budget of a family with an annual income under $50,000: Club fees can run several thousand dollars even before you add the uniforms, equipment, travel expenses and additional coaching, camps and year-round leagues considered necessary for real “success.” Consider, too, the time. A child focusing on a single sport will spend thousands of hours on it by the time he graduates high school — hours that necessarily aren’t spent on exploring other options or learning new skills.
There are many excellent reasons for children (for everyone) to play sports. In that same survey, parents reported that playing a sport improved their child’s health, discipline and ability to get along with others. And the adults surveyed who participate in sports offer an even better reason to get out on the field or the ice: They enjoy it.
Which is exactly why children should play — for the fun of it. That is not to say that every game has to be fun, or that a child should blow off practices, let the team down, or quit midway through a season. We can take fun seriously. But fun should be why children play. Not for the college application. Not for a maybe-college-scholarship: The percentage of high school players who go on to play in college for most sports is less than 10 percent for both men and women across all divisions (ice hockey and lacrosse are exceptions: slightly more than 10 percent of male ice hockey players and male and female lacrosse players and a surprising 23 percent of girls who play ice hockey in high school go on to college play).
The percentages of high school players who later play on Division 1 teams are smaller, and the percentages of students who receive athletic scholarships smaller still. Mark Hyman, author of “The Most Expensive Game in Town,” puts the number at about 3 percent — of all college players. (Others estimate it to be even lower). That’s not 3 percent of athletes in a given sport. It’s 3 percent of the athletes who go on to play in college, already a much smaller number of the players you’re looking at on the high school field. For baseball (using the N.C.A.A.’s player numbers to run the numbers) that would be 999 scholarships. And the average amount of a Division 1 athletic scholarship? That’s $13,821 for men; $14,660 for women. Most scholarships aren’t four-year scholarships, either, but renew (or not) every year.
As students and families sign up for sports this fall and winter, we should be asking: if you knew this was just for fun, would you still do it? Would you do this much of it? Would you do it differently?
Because if you wouldn’t — or more important your child wouldn’t — then it’s time to put some or all of those hours and dollars into something else.