My children have no wish to live in Sparta, and I have no desire to change that.

There are four of them, and they all, to varying degrees, like some sports, some of the time. None of them has expressed more than a passing wish to dedicate his or her life to any particular athletic pastime, and to my mind, that’s as it should be.

They enjoy the sports they play – hockey, primarily, with dabbling in soccer or tennis. They enjoy doing other things, too. Our hope is to help them participate in their team sport of choice with suitable team-supporting rigor, while giving them plenty of time and space to explore other things.

But as I read Lisa Catherine Harper’s essay “The Crazy, Intense Schedule of Competitive Youth Soccer? Bring It On,” I was struck by how much my children’s lives, in which we actively try to balance sports and other activities, avoiding super-competitive leagues and elite teams, still manage to resemble the “Spartan” training her children choose in their passion for their game.

The line between what she calls “highly competitive team sports” and regular, ordinary team sports is thin, and it seems to be getting thinner all the time.

The funny thing is, even youth sports associations, like USA Hockey, say that the intensity with which many of today’s children play their sport isn’t the way they want it to be – or even the way to create the best players, let alone instill a lifelong love of the game.

Because hockey is our family sport, I am most familiar with its attempts to lessen the intensity that has led to young players at all levels playing five days a week, year-round in some places. USA Hockey’s American Development model has children under 12 playing fewer games and spending more time on their home rink in practice sessions designed to build skills, not competitive fire, and it actively encourages young players to play other sports.

“At the youngest ages, we shouldn’t try to develop hockey players,” Bob Mancini, a regional manager for USA Hockey and a former collegiate hockey coach, told ESPN magazine. “We should develop athletes who love hockey.”

The ESPN magazine writer Tom Farrey notes that both USA Tennis and USA Swimming support children’s playing other sports – which suggests that their practice schedules should be structured to give those children the time to do so.

But movements to lessen the intensity of sports, whether at the highly competitive or theoretically recreational levels, face a mighty obstacle: parents. Parents who, when they see their children playing fewer games than Sally across the street, or practicing less often than Bobby who is in Connor’s class, worry that their children won’t be able to catch up, won’t make the high school team or won’t have fun, because they will lose all their games to the kids who spend more time on the ice or on the field.

Those fears lead to a vicious circle, with every league trying to keep up with the league next door. As highly competitive or elite teams in various sports add more practices, games and tournaments, even their supposedly more relaxed brethren feel the pressure, and what it means to play a sport as a child changes.

Those of us who aren’t raising what Lisa Catherine Harper calls “a sharp, pointed dagger” of a child, but were aiming instead for a more well-rounded approach, need to speak up before our children’s teams ramp up. We need to actively tell coaches and associations that we are happy with two practices a week, with one game per weekend, with one tournament per season – or none.

We need to seek out teams where players are not punished for missing a few practices or a game for a piano recital, and hold on to a world in which you can love a game without dedicating yourself (and your parent) to it full time.

Team sports should not be the province only of those willing to sacrifice much on a Spartan altar. While some children and families choose the work and commitment involved in highly competitive elite teams, let’s make sure there is still something left for those who consider it play.

Contact KJ Dell-Antonia at:

[email protected]