For over 20 years, I’ve been a tennis club member. Player levels range from beginner to ex-professionals. Everybody gets along and rallies around a sport they enjoy, no matter their level of wealth.
But I just realized something odd. And the realization wouldn’t have come had I not become a father. After three years of mingling with preschool and kindergarten parents, I’ve been wondering where the heck are all the adult athletes?
Maybe I’ve lived in a sports bubble for too long. Because the vast majority of my friends play sports. Tennis and softball are what we do for fun. It’s so much better than going to the bar and drinking all night!
I was also taught the importance of learning tennis or golf because they are lifetime sports commonly played in business settings. If I didn’t know how to play either, I might be left out from career and client events.
The Pressure To Play Sports As Children
My five-year-old isn’t into sports yet. Instead, he’s into number blocks, sign language, math, and playing at the playground. I feel this is entirely normal for a kindergartener.
But as I got to know other parents, I observed their proclivity to enroll their five-year-olds in every after-school sports activity possible.
Many kids play soccer from 5 pm to 7 pm during the weekdays. While other kids play baseball for three hours on Sundays in addition to practice on the weekdays. Talk about a long day!
Here I am picking up my boy from school and taking him to the hot tub to talk about his day and relax. Sometimes we’ll go to the playground too if he’s up for it. Naturally, I began to wonder whether I should emphasize sports more at age five.
Am I being too soft? I just keep thinking to myself, what’s the rush?
No Adult Athletes To Be Found
Guided by my observation that many of my fellow parents seemed to have a strong desire to have their kids play sports, I assumed many of these parents were also athletes themselves. After all, we tend to introduce our kids to things we like to do.
It isn’t the case at all!
One dad had to leave a school event early to take his five-year-old to baseball practice. Before he left, I asked him whether he wanted to join our softball league. He demurred saying he doesn’t really play.
Then I asked other dads in a group chat whether anybody wanted to play soccer at this incredible astroturf field. Nobody was interested. Then I asked whether anybody was interested in playing Pickleball. Only one mom said yes, but she has never played before.
I purposefully didn’t ask about tennis because I already have too many people who want to play. Further, for it to be fun for all parties, you have to play with others at a similar level. But I also discovered nobody plays tennis either.
So I got to thinking. Maybe the reason why parents emphasize sports so much for their young children is that they don’t play sports themselves. Maybe parents want for their children what they themselves didn’t have growing up.
Sports And Your Career
All of these parents have good jobs. Yet none of them play sports.
In the personal finance and book authoring worlds, I can think of only one person who played competitive sports. So maybe sporting skills really don’t matter for getting ahead in your career or business!
I used to think playing a sport was important for one’s career. While I worked at Goldman Sachs in NYC, the head of my desk played football at Dartmouth. At 27, he was one of the youngest VPs. Today, he is one of the senior partners and is the GS Chairman of Global Markets in Asia Pacific.
While at Credit Suisse in San Francisco, one of my U.S. colleagues played quarterback for Cal Berkeley. He was famous for coming in for the injured starting quarterback and beating Stanford in the 1986 Big Game when Cal was only 1-9. Meanwhile, we had another guy win a bronze medal in crew at the Olympics in Sydney!
So I got to thinking again. Maybe athletes are simply more common in the finance world where battles are fought almost every day. But athletes are less common among techies.
The Benefits Of Playing Sports
I recognize why parents encourage their children to play sports.
One mom whose son will play tennis for UCLA told me tennis distracted her son from doing drugs, playing video games all day, and hanging out with a bad crowd.
I asked her whether she pushed him into playing tennis and she said no. Instead, her son was driven to practice and play tournaments on his own. She said she actually had to throttle back the number of tournaments he was playing because it started interfering with his studies.
Sports teach you discipline because to get better you are forced to practice for endless hours. The grit you develop is vital for being able to grind long enough to succeed. Part of the reason why I was able to commit to publishing three times a week for ten years was due to sports. Getting in as many reps as possible to get good is ingrained in me.
Sports also builds mental toughness, which helps get you through adversity. During a match you might experience an injury. Or you might find yourself panicking as your lead slips away. The mental fortitude you develop to figure things out helps tremendously when you are competing in business.
Sports also teach you how to work better in a team. Doing everything yourself only gets you so far. But if you can surround yourself with great team members who have unique strengths, your upside potential is even greater.
Given losing is an inevitability, sports also teach you how to be a better loser. When I coached high school tennis, the two most important things I taught my players were to make enough effort to not have regret and good sportsmanship. Playing the right way, with honesty and integrity, was much more important than winning.
Finally, playing sports is good exercise. If you don’t injure yourself, you’ll feel better and sleep better. Your mental health will probably improve as well as you make new friends.
Being A Nerd Is Clearly Better For Your Career
Only 0.1% of athletes turn professional. And the longevity of the professional athlete doesn’t last long.
The average NBA athlete lasts 4.5 years, the average NFL athlete lasts 3.3 years, the average MLB athlete lasts 2.7 years, and the average professional tennis player retires by 28 years old.
The pay isn’t even that great for some sports. For example, if you’re the 200th-ranked tennis player in the world, you’re only making about $100,000 in prize money. If you’re 100th ranked, your prize money increases to about $300,000. But at these levels, there are travel, lodging, and coaching expenses that knock down your net pay by 35% – 80%.
Yes, being an athlete has its benefits for making money in a non-sports profession. But it’s pretty clear being a nerd is way better for earning a lot more money over your lifetime.
Nobody is physically battling in business. Instead, a great business is about creating an excellent product, great marketing, strong branding, and longevity.
Sure, if you can be a nerd athlete, then great. But based on my real-world experience so far, the vast majority of successful people I’ve met do not play sports or no longer play sports. Their time is filled with other things.
All the pressure parents place on their kids to play sports doesn’t seem to transfer into adulthood. Therefore, if you are a parent, I wouldn’t stress so much about pushing your kids into sports so early and so often.
Starting Sports Later Is Fine
If your kids enjoy sports, then by all means support them. But forcing them to play every sport or concentrate on one sport may backfire if they don’t want to play. They might burn out and quit sports altogether.
Further, be careful about how much time and money you spend on sports. If you were sacrificing your retirement savings or time with another sibling who does not have the same sports interests, you may be doing yourself a disservice.
Only two percent of high school athletes get any type of athletic scholarship. So the likelihood of being good enough in a sport to gain an admissions advantage to an elite college is also similarly small.
If you’re good enough to play a sport in college, you might not like all the matches and traveling either. I’ve spoken to many college tennis players who told me their workload is immense and they seldom have downtime to hangout with friends not on their team.
I Was A Late Starter In Sports
Perhaps part of the reason why I’m not pushing my son towards playing sports is because I started playing tennis at 11. I was good enough to play for Mary Washington, a Division III school. But I didn’t get a scholarship so I decided to attend William & Mary, a Division I school instead.
More than a decade later after college, I ended up playing 5.0 league doubles with my buddy Tim, who played over 100 matches at William & Mary. Only about 1% of tennis players who play league get to the 5.0 level. So starting later was good enough. 33 years after first picking up a tennis racket, I’m still playing league tennis for fun.
At the end of the day, playing sports on a weekly basis makes me happy. Tennis was a savior during the 2020 lockdowns. Now I’ve picked up Pickleball and am having a blast! The game is more inclusive and so much better on the body.
I hope my kids find joy in at least one sport growing up. But if they don’t, that’s OK. So long as they find joy in some other hobby like art or music then that’s great. Just being an academic is no fun!
Reader Questions And Recommendations
Readers, did you play a sport growing up? Do you play competitive sports as an adult? Where did all the adult athletes go? Why is there this obsession from parents to make their kids play sports?
If you are a parent and want to read a great book about the obsessiveness of youth sports, check out the new book, Taking Back The Game by Linda Flanagan. The book will help you see a more balanced perspective.
For more nuanced personal finance content, join 50,000+ others and sign up for the free Financial Samurai newsletter. Financial Samurai is one of the largest independently-owned personal finance sites that started in 2009.