The Games We Play

Navigating the world of youth sports can be more daunting than the NFL combine. We’re here to help.

Photo courtesy of Sean Locke/Stocksy

Landing on the cover of a magazine is quite an achievement, but when youth athletics claimed Time’s September 4, 2017, cover, it wasn’t all trophies and ticker-tape parades. “How Kid Sports Turned Pro” detailed, in less than glowing terms, how clubs and coaches—and even cities—have transformed big-league dreams into a $15 billion industry in America.

The reality is that few Colorado high school athletes will go on to the pros, and less than five percent will have the opportunity to play in college. Even so, that doesn’t mean the cash parents invest in club fees, equipment, and travel isn’t money well spent. Study after study has demonstrated the value of youth sports in developing cooperation, leadership, resilience, confidence, and all manner of other desirable (and hirable) qualities. More important: Sports are fun. That’s the reason nine out of 10 kids play, according to a recent George Washington University study. “If your child is having a positive experience while learning important life lessons, then every dollar you spend is worth it—whether they play in college or not,” says Colorado School of Mines athletic director David Hansburg.

As a state in which 60 percent of our high school students compete in at least one sport, Colorado is certainly contributing to that booming $15 billion business. To help parents navigate the vast landscape of youth sports, we talked with local coaches, athletes, athletic directors, researchers, and sports psychologists about everything from what you should ask (and not ask) coaches to how much time your child should devote to training. So whether you’re raising the next Christian McCaffrey or a future intramural star, this playbook will help ensure your kid loves sports, no matter what level she’s playing at.

The Old College Try

We checked in with the athletic directors at several Colorado colleges to get the inside scoop on preparing to play at the next level.

Encourage your child to play more than one sport. Every AD we spoke with argued against early specialization. Multisport athletes tend to suffer less burnout, get fewer injuries, and have higher game IQs.

Be realistic about your child’s abilities. If your son is a five-foot-five basketball player chasing the Division I dream, he might miss out on a better playing opportunity—and bigger scholarship—at a smaller school. If you’re not sure your child fits into a particular program, encourage him to be direct and ask the coach, “Are you interested in me?” Be prepared to move on if the answer is “no.”

Mind your kid’s (social media) manners. Last year, star Virginia running back Shedrick McCall lost his scholarship to play at Old Dominion because of a YouTube video in which he shared a story about trespassing. “When you look at what young people post, you can evaluate traits and background and gain more knowledge,” says University of Colorado Boulder AD Rick George. So remember: Big brother is watching.

Keep those grades up. “The better the student,” George says, “the better the opportunities.” That might mean encouraging your daughter to take the SAT or ACT ASAP to show schools that she’s already aced the entrance exams—or so she has time to improve her score.

Parental Foul

Flag: Rehashing Suzy’s performance the second the car door closes.
Penalty: Overanalyzing a game on the way home can take the fun out of the activity for young athletes, and that can lead to burnout. If your kid wants to talk about her performance—good or bad—great. Otherwise, leave the game recaps to ESPN.

Sporting Chance

A look at the statistics of attrition—and the odds of your little MVP making it up the athletic pyramid to college sports and beyond.

Grade School

71.5% Share of children ages six to 12 who played a team or individual sport on a regular basis in 2016, according to a report from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. That’s down 1.5 percent from 2011.
34.6% Percentage of children from families with annual household incomes of $25,000 or less who played a team sport at least one day in 2016. That’s nearly 35 percentage points lower than kids whose families earned more than $100,000. To address this gap, the Aspen Institute, which has a research arm that studies youth sports, provided tips for how communities can ensure low-income kids have access to sports in its 2015 report “Sport for All, Play for Life.” (Example: Revitalize in-town leagues, as the Baltimore-based Volo City Kids Foundation did in 2015 when it launched free rec programs in major U.S. cities; the leagues also provide players and families with postgame meals.)

Middle School

31% Percentage of DPS middle school students who played a school sport in 2017-’18. As education budgets get tighter, extracurricular activities are often among the first things cut, and Colorado has seen a decline in sports at middle schools. In response, earlier this year, the Colorado High School Activities Association offered Colorado middle schools auxiliary membership, which entitles them to benefits such as additional training for coaches.
1 DPS middle school sports that are “no-cut” programs. (The only one is cross-country.) So unless a kid is good enough to make her school’s teams, she has to look for another place to play.

High School

40% Portion of Denver Public Schools (DPS) freshmen who competed in school sports in 2017-’18 (1,816 students). That percentage dropped to 32 percent for seniors, who had to be able to make the varsity squads.
16,686 Colorado high school students who played football, the most popular sport, in 2016-’17. The other top sports for boys: track (10,275), basketball (9,179), and baseball (8,523). For girls: volleyball (9,446), soccer (8,000), and track (7,574).


1% Approximate share of Colorado’s 139,969 high school athletes who signed letters of intent to play at any collegiate level in 2017. That’s about 1,244 students. (Note: The total number of high school athletes includes all grade levels, though letters of intent are generally signed by seniors.)
$3.3 Billion Total value of athletic scholarships awarded across all divisions (NCAA, NAIA, and NJCAA) in 2015. (The average Division I scholarship for men is $14,270, and for women it’s $15,162.) Meanwhile, more than $11 billion was awarded in
academic scholarships and other financial aid.


1,860: 1 Odds of an American male high school basketball player making it to the NBA, where he would make a minimum annual salary of $582,180.
3,416: 1 Odds of an American female high school basketball player competing in the WNBA, where she would make a maximum annual salary of $115,500.

In The Club

As public school sports offerings have dwindled, club programs have flourished. “They’re filling a niche schools couldn’t afford to support,” says Colorado High School Activities Association commissioner Rhonda Blanford-Green. Search NBC’s SportsEngine for Denver-area clubs, and you’ll get hundreds of results. But finding the perfect fit for your little bundle of muscles requires a lot of research. To help get you started, we’ve assembled this brief look at some programs at the tops of their games.

Photo courtesy of Front Range Volleyball Club

Sport: Swimming
Club: Fort Collins Area Swim Team (FAST)
Fees*: From $65 per month for eight-year-olds to $175 per month for high schoolers (meet fees not included)
Collegiate Success: Since 2010, 67 alumni have competed in college, 38 at Division I schools.

Sport: Soccer
Club: Real Colorado Soccer, Centennial
Fees*: Between $675 and $1,125 for high schoolers (uniform not included)
Collegiate Success: In 2018, 39 seniors committed to play in college; 24 went DI.

Sport: Soccer
Club: Colorado Rapids Youth Soccer (now merged with Colorado Storm), Aurora
Fees*: From $75 for toddlers and preschoolers to about $2,500 for the most competitive teams
Collegiate Success: Since 2009, 100 alumni** from the Rapids Development Academy have played in college; 15 went pro.

Sport: Volleyball
Club: Colorado Juniors, Monument
Fees*: $2,500
Collegiate Success: Between 2014 and 2018, 105 alumni played in college, 64 at DI schools.

Sport: Volleyball
Club: Front Range Volleyball Club, Englewood
Fees*: $2,650 for middle school teams; from $3,550 for high schoolers
Collegiate Success: Over the past five years, 28 alumni played in college; 14 went DI.

Sport: Baseball
Club: Slammers Baseball (North and South), Broomfield and Englewood
Fees*: From $2,600
Collegiate Success: In 2017, 48 of 52 graduating seniors played in college.

Sport: Softball
Club: Colorado Styxx, Denver area
Fees*: $2,200
Collegiate Success: Since 2009, 51 alumni have played in college; 30 went DI.

Sport: Softball
Club: Triple Crown Stars (TC Stars), Fort Collins
Fees*: Undisclosed
Collegiate Success: Since 1999, 212 alumni have played in college; 58 went DI.

Sport: Basketball
Club: Premier Basketball Club (girls), Multiple locations, Colorado
Fees*: $40 annual uniform rental fee, $125 one-time gear fee, plus a $135 monthly club fee (parents pay additional tournament costs)
Collegiate Success: Over the past five years, 80 percent of Premier Academy Program alumni have played in college; 13 went DI.

Sport: Basketball
Club: Roughriders (boys, formerly Mile High Select), Superior
Fees*: $800 to $2,500, depending on level
Collegiate Success: Coaches expect to send five to 10 players to college programs over the next two years.

Sport: Hockey
Club: Rocky Mountain RoughRiders, Superior
Fees*: From $6,000 to $9,000
Collegiate Success: Since 2011, more than 30 alumni have played in college, most DI; more than 100 played junior hockey.

*Fees are per season and do not include travel unless otherwise noted.
**Figure does not include college players who competed on other Rapids teams.

Playing Goldilocks

Asking potential clubs these questions will help you find the one that’s just right for your young athlete.

What’s the overall philosophy, on and off the field?
Some teams give kids equal playing time; others don’t. Most clubs have both kinds of teams. “Only about five percent of our athletes are elite players,” says Jared Spires, chief operating officer of Real Colorado Soccer. “We don’t want to discourage kids who won’t play in college, so we think about how every kid can grow as a player.” And since youth sports are ostensibly about building good humans—not just good athletes—ask about off-the-court lessons. The most competitive Colorado Rapids Youth Soccer teams, for example, have a volunteer “culture keeper” who helps organize team events, like pizza parties, to build camaraderie.

What kind of training have the coaches had?
Fewer than 20 percent of the country’s 6.5 million youth coaches are educated in motivational techniques, and only about a third have received sport-skills or tactics-based instruction. That matters: Athletes who played for trained coaches quit at a far lower rate (five percent) than those who played for untrained ones (26 percent), according to a study published in the Sports Psychologist journal. Fort Collins Area Swim Team coach Mike Novell advises watching a practice to ensure you’re leaving your budding athlete in qualified hands.

What is the process for player development?
A developmental approach to coaching often leads to greater skill acquisition and less burnout. In 2011, USA Hockey introduced a three-stage model of coaching to avoid the attrition they were seeing in young athletes (nearly half quit by the time they were nine). That model, like the one adopted by the U.S. Olympic Committee last year, encourages providing opportunities for kids to be physically active in the first stage (zero to six). From ages roughly six to nine, the focus is on fun and refining movement fundamentals. Finally, eight- to 12-year-olds start learning and practicing hockey-specific skills.

A Case For Rec Sport

Not making the top team isn’t the end of your kid’s athletic career. It might just be the beginning of the best time of his life.

My son has loved playing hockey since he was seven years old. In fact, he attended so many University of Denver camps as a child that he was on a first-name basis with then head coach Jim Montgomery. So when he was relegated to one of the University of Denver’s Jr. Pioneers house teams (that’s the term for the recreational team) at the age of nine, our son was disappointed, and we were, too. But after three seasons of “going rec,” we—and, I think, he—couldn’t be happier.

Photo courtesy of Carol MacKay/Courtesy of Denver Athletics & Recreation

On our team, every player gets equal ice time in games, regardless of the score—something I know doesn’t always play out at higher levels because I hear the moms and dads complaining. Another bonus: There’s a lot less parent drama. Because the stakes are lower, everyone seems more relaxed. And although our 12-year-old’s team doesn’t get as much practice time as the upper-level travel squads, we also pay less money.

Sure, a house team plays fewer games a season, but that means our son can participate in other sports, like rock climbing. He has time for science club, trips to the local 3D-printer lab, and homework—and sleep. We aren’t crisscrossing the state every weekend for games and crashing in crappy hotels. Our son plays in one tournament per season, and it’s a fun event for everyone: The bracket structure makes it exciting for the players, and they love that we all stay in the same hotel so they can down postgame pizza slices together.

And unlike most hockey families, we can still ski.

Competitive club teams often work out really well for the top-tier kids, and I understand why parents of even non-star athletes feel compelled to spend money on travel teams. They want to give their children every advantage. How will my kid ever play in high school, parents wonder, if he’s only on the ice twice a week in fourth grade?

For our family, though, a spot on the high school team isn’t the end goal. High school is still a few years off, and we encourage our kids to play sports because they help teach teamwork and perseverance, while hopefully encouraging a lifetime of fitness. Most important, sports, simply, can be really fun.

So, every fall I cross my fingers that enough kids will show up to field a house team. (If they don’t, we’d have to find another program.) “But if he made the travel team you’d let him go, right?” a mom asked me recently. Sure. I mean, probably. Well…maybe. OK, yes—but only as long as our son still enjoyed the experience. —Rebecca L. Olgeirson

Pooling Your Money

Club fees only make up part of the price tag of raising an athlete. There’s also gear, gas, food, and other travel costs to consider. We asked the parents of an elite youth swimmer to track their expenses for a week and project them for a year. Conclusion: If you want to play in the world of high-end athletics, be prepared to make it rain.

Weekly Expenses

Seven round-trip drives to either swim practice or meets (294 miles), $160.23*
Lunch, a sandwich, and Starbucks, $51
Annual Total ($211.23 per week, 49 per year, with three weeks off): $10,350.27

Yearly Expenses

Equipment: Tech swimsuits ($300 per suit, four per year), $1,200
Goggles ($20 per pair, four pairs per year), $80
Team shirts, swim caps, and swim backpack, $100
Equipment Total: $1,380
Meet entries:10 local meets ($40 each), $400
Club Fee $1,500

*Based on IRS mileage reimbursement rate of 54.5 cents per mile

March: Sectionals in Austin, $1,800
June: Meet in Nashville, $800
August: Meet in Sacramento, $1,300
Travel Total: $3,900



Parental Foul

Flag: Screaming at refs and umpires.
Penalty: File this under “Things That Should Not Have To Be Said.” Yet many leagues across the country have a shortage of officials in part because refs and umps are tired of taking abuse, says Tom Puzio of the Positive Coaching Alliance’s Colorado chapter. Think you’re upset now? Wait till the season is canceled because there’s no one to call the games.

Potential Hurdles Ahead

Although entire academic journals have been filled with the benefits of youth sports, plenty of ink also has been devoted to potential risks that come with immersion in competitive programs. Pay special attention to these arenas to ensure your child stays fit—in both body and mind.

Photo courtesy of iStock

Physical Health

In recent years, academic studies and medical practitioners have linked early athletic specialization and more intense training to an increase in injuries. “We’re used to seeing overuse injuries—rotator cuff issues, lower back pain, tendonitis,” says Landow Training sports performance coach Augustine Agyei. “But not when you’re 12.” Researchers have suggested young athletes protect their bodies by playing more than one sport; limiting participation in one sport to less than eight months a year; and practicing a sport for no more hours per week than their age (so a 12-year-old shouldn’t shoot hoops for longer than 12 hours a week). The suburban Denver Slammers baseball club uses similar math to protect young arms: It doesn’t allow its pitchers to throw more than 100 innings over the course of a year—and that includes the kids’ high school seasons.

Emotional Distress

“Burnout,” as the sporting world calls it, is linked to what psychologists call “mental exhaustion.” It’s characterized by a decrease in mood, increase in anxiety, mental fatigue, and a loss of interest in something a child previously found pleasurable. Preventing this might mean taking a break—maybe for an entire season—from a sport, something that parents who have pinned their hopes on a college scholarship might find difficult. Nevertheless, if they see these signs, they should ask their children if they still enjoy playing—and accept the response if the answer is “no.”

Photo courtesy of Marta Locklear/Stocksy

Social Trade-Offs

When kids practice two to three times a week and play games on weekends, there isn’t as much time for, say, homecoming dances or Disneyland vacations. “It’s important for parents to talk to their kids about sacrifices that may need to be made,” says University of Denver associate professor of sport and performance psychology (and former collegiate gymnast) Jamie Shapiro. And although practices and games might dominate the calendar, she adds, parents should still endeavor to squeeze in camping trips and other activities to develop other facets of their kids’ personalities. After all, everyone’s career comes to an end at some point. That “retirement,” as University of Colorado Boulder sports psychologist Chris Bader puts it, can be devastating if athletes have only ever identified as athletes.

Parental Foul

Flag: Sticking your nose in the playbook.
Penalty: Parents of college athletes shouldn’t be talking to coaches about playing time or tactics. That only makes the athlete’s relationship with his skipper awkward. “Your child is 19, maybe 20 years old,” says Colorado College athletic director Ken Ralph. “They are perfectly capable of communicating with their coach.”

What I Learned…

Homegrown Colorado stars and their parents reflect on their experiences and share advice for parents and young athletes today.

Photo courtesy of the Franklin Family
D.A. and Dick Franklin, parents of Olympic Gold Medal swimmer Missy Franklin

D.A.: Missy made many compromises in her desire to be a “normal kid” and enjoy activities outside the pool. When invited to overnight birthday parties, she might go until 10 p.m. then have me pick her up so she could get a good night’s sleep before morning practice. On prom night, when everyone slept overnight at a friend’s house, her dad picked her up, drove her to morning practice, then back to the party to cook breakfast for the group! These were Missy’s decisions. Our role was to assist her with the details.
Dick: Be their parent, not their friend. This next generation has massive challenges and problems facing them that we, the baby boomers, have left them. Enable them; don’t try to motivate them into doing something you think they want to do.

Photo courtesy of Cathy Hayes
Tom and Cathy Hayes, parents of 20-year-old Boulderite Margo Hayes, the first woman to complete a confirmed 5.15a, one of the hardest grades in sport climbing

Play is vital! Free time allows [kids] to find what interests them. Avoid technology for as long as possible to allow them to create and be curious about the world around them. Give them responsibility, and teach them the importance of service.

What was the most rewarding or challenging part about raising elite athletes?
Trying to balance family time and training was the most challenging part of raising a highly motivated athlete. The most rewarding aspect to witness as a parent is how her experience as an athlete has helped her grow as an individual. The lessons that Margo has learned through sports have helped develop her strong character, compassionate nature, and integrity.

Looking back, would you change anything? If so, what and why?
I can’t think of anything that we would change apart from being more knowledgeable when it came to typical injuries in her sport. If we had known, we would have pulled in the reins a little quicker. She continually strives to improve, but risks injury due to her high level of motivation.

Photo courtesy of Kortne Ford
Kortne Ford, Colorado Rapids defender

[Sports] made me realize that there was always someone out there working harder than me, therefore they were better than me—but it didn’t have to be that way.

Laurie Ford, Kortne’s mom
I wouldn’t change a damn thing. The difficult times we went through involving sports molded us into the people we are today, and we wouldn’t have achieved our goals as a parent and son if it weren’t for the controversy we faced.

If you could change anything about your youth sports career, what would it be and why?
Kortne: I wish I would have worked on my physical strength earlier on in my youth. I ended up putting on a lot of muscle in college ,but I feel like if I could have done this earlier it would have bumped my game up to another level that would have better prepared me for the professional game.

What advice do you have for today’s young athletes?
Kortne: My advice to the kids would be is to never give up your dream to become a professional athlete, or anything for that matter, because someone tells you that you aren’t good enough. Talent, or lack there of, should never hold any kid back from chasing their dreams. The kids who make it and achieve their goals are the kids who realize that they can surpass those with better talent/athleticism with hard work, dedication, sacrifice, and a positive mindset.

For parents?
Kortne: My advice to parents is to never hesitate to enroll their kids in club sports for monetary reasons and never deny the kids to take part in sports if they have the desire. Sports have the potential to developer and mature kids faster than anything else. Being involved in sports with good teammates and good coaches are arguably one of the most important steps to youth development. There are so many qualities picked up from being a apart of a sports team that simply cannot be taught.

Photo courtesy of Mitch Unrein
Kay and Mike Unrein, parents of Mitch Unrein, former Denver Bronco and current defensive tackle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Kay: We always told our kids, “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose as long as you walk away thinking you did your best.” I think that’s still true.
Mike: Yep, and also that there’s more to life than athletics, like family.
Kay: The kids need a break!
Mike: They start so young these days. Let them do unsupervised stuff without parents and refs—the parents and refs fight more than the kids now anyway. Let them be kids, for God’s sake. They’re going to grow up faster than you think.

Mitch Unrein

Have fun with it; I can still remember some high school games more vividly than NFL games. You won’t have those opportunities again—when you’re practicing with your friends or out under Friday night lights. Enjoy those moments. If you work your way up to college and the NFL, it’ll get serious soon enough.

Photo courtesy of the Shiffrin Family
Jeff and Eileen Shiffrin, parents of Olympic gold medal skier Mikaela Shiffrin

We never thought of it as “raising an elite athlete.” Our priority was to enjoy every minute of our time raising our children, not aspiring Olympic athletes. We encouraged our kids to try to do their best and find the fun and beauty in whatever they were into at the time. My advice to parents: Be patient. Don’t pressure your kids to be “the next Lindsey Vonn.” Just let the kids’ lives unfold naturally, support them in appropriate ways, and advocate for them when your gut tells you to do so. But don’t pressure them to be in the Olympics someday, because that is a sure way to make them feel like they are disappointing you if they don’t win every race or game.

What was the hardest part about raising an elite athlete?
I don’t remember anything being difficult really. If I had to really specify challenges however, I would say that the logistics of getting through high school while competing internationally during the school year was challenging. Additionally, one of the things we also regretted and still regret is the loss of time spent with family like grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins during the holidays especially since Mikaela was usually at a ski camp or racing for so many of those special times.

The most rewarding?
Here again I would say that “raising an elite” was not the rewarding thing but the lifestyle we all had together was so amazingly fun. We explored a wide range of experiences together and Jeff and I had a blast hanging with and watching Mikaela and Taylor grow up and participate especially in soccer and skiing but in anything they did- windsurfing, biking, tennis, playing music, artistic endeavors. We LOVED sharing all things together for as long as we could- homework, stories about school, friends – good and bad, all the things that accompany being a parent and absolutely loving raising our kids. It has ALL been rewarding.

Looking back, would you change anything? If so, what and why?
Looking back we would not change a thing.

What advice do you have for the parents of today’s young athletes?
It’s so much more important in our opinion to focus on the process and being the best the kids can be, reaching their own individual potential at whatever they are doing at the time, than to push them to reach someone else’s predetermined, historical statistic for success at a certain age. ENJOY your time together – not just in their sports but in all experiences, because time flies and once they are grown up and out of the house, you can’t get that time back.

Photo courtesy of Ken and Patty Gold
Ken Gold, father of Olympic snowboarders Arielle and Taylor Gold

The hardest thing about raising elite athletes, by far, is the injuries. When Taylor was young, he had a bad fall and was lying in the bottom of the halfpipe in pain. I slid down to see how he was, and he looked up and said, “Get used to it.” It is heart-wrenching when your kids get hurt—you never get used to it.

What was the most rewarding part about raising elite athletes?
The most rewarding thing about raising my kids is to see them succeed and to see them understand that all their hard work and their sacrifices and having to overcome injuries and challenges and obstacles and other people’s doubts was worth it, but most importantly for them to be able in that moment of triumph and elation to pause and look around them and feel real genuine gratitude for having the opportunity to do what they Love and do it at the highest level.

Looking back, would you change anything? If so, what and why?
Looking back, I honestly don’t know that I would change anything. I was very fortunate in some ways that I was able to put my career on hold at the exact time both Taylor and Arielle were emerging and promising young athletes who could become elite with the right combination of hard work, opportunities, dedication and passion for snowboarding. If I could do anything differently, I would have been more adamant in Sochi that the half pipe there was unsafe and unridable because non of the athletes were able to complete any practice runs it was so bad and I would have tried to insist that they delay the contest until it was fixed and that that would have prevented Arielle’s injury.

What advice do you have for the parents of today’s young athletes?
If you’re lucky enough to have a child that is passionate about something, sports, music, drama, whatever and they demonstrate that they are really passionate and committed to excelling at it, then find a way to support their dreams in any way you can. My kids had to prove to me they were willing to make the necessary sacrifices for our family to make the sacrifices for them: they had to get great grades in school and graduate, they had to do everything their coaches asked of them in season and out of season, they had to show they had that determination and passion and perseverance and once I knew they had that, I said we were all in. Most of us have dreams when we are young and not all of our dreams are attainable and in the case of an elite athlete the window to achieve that level of success is so small, I said to them if you do your part, I’ll do mine and I’ve so grateful and Blessed that it’s worked out for both Taylor and Arielle.