This Saturday, more than 2,560 NCAA football and soccer teams will meet on fields throughout the nation. Add in college field hockey and rugby programs, and the number of teams rises above 3,604. More than 846,000 high school soccer players will play this week, along with an even 1 million high school football players — including 2,400 girls — on approximately 13,800 teams. Factor in 2.3 million youth soccer players and 1.2 million youth footballers, and then consider the tens of millions of total spectators.

These are staggering numbers of participation and competition; there is no voluntary endeavor like sports in American society today.


I know these Saturdays well, because for the past 19 years, I’ve spent every single one of them on a field. My three sons have played on various athletic teams — nearly three seasons every year — from the ages of 4 to 22. Indeed, most every weekday afternoon I attended a practice or a game, and then there were the dozens of tournaments and college recruiting camps from Maine to Florida. In this age of big data, I recently calculated that collectively, my kids played on approximately 149 teams, attended more than 8,800 practices and played in more than 2,300 games.

But I’m hardly alone: Three out of four American families with school-aged children have at least one playing an organized sport — a total of about 45 million kids; 56% of boys and girls ages 6 to 12 played a team sport, according to Aspen Institute Project Play.

Millions of young Americans take to the fields Saturday mornings, playing their chosen sports and testing their strength, skills and mettle.
Millions of young Americans take to the fields Saturday mornings, playing their chosen sports and testing their strength, skills and mettle. (Baltimore Sun photo by Karl Merton Ferron)

Certainly athletic participation occasions the usual tropes: discipline, personal satisfaction, alertness of mind. For example, as the Women’s Sports Foundation notes, female high school athletes are 92% less likely to get involved with drugs, 80% less likely to get pregnant, and 3 times more likely to graduate than non-athletes.

But there’s a deeper benefit. A supercharged, 4th-grade lacrosse coach once lectured me and other parents sitting in bleachers on the eve of what he called “a make-or-break” season: “Folks, this field is the only place your Johnny puts himself out there to be judged by a bunch of strangers. And half of them are screaming at him to fail.” Coach Firebreather could have been talking about every young person on the fields today.

And amen to that. On-field competition is where Johnny succeeds or fails, and he does so in direct relation to his preparation, resilience and teamwork. No excuses. There’s no app for grinding.

Twenty-three hundred games later, what I recall most is the adversity: My kid in the soccer goal stopping 23 shots but allowing another eight to get by; a kid fumbling near the goal line and losing a championship game. And oh yeah, a kid never leaving the bench, even in the fourth quarter of a blowout game. Kids choked up, parents dismayed, coaches in shock, the echoes of cheers from the winning team and crowd — all of it excruciating.

But I know that the recovery from disappointments made my boys much stronger than the elation of victories. And today, I bet few of the spectators today, except for parents, have even an idea of what it takes to play on an NCAA Division I team, even a Division III squad. As the NCAA notes, “Of the nearly 8 million students currently participating in high school athletics in the United States, only 480,000 of them will compete at NCAA schools.” What the NCAA left out was that maybe one fourth of those competing will get much playing time. I know. Firsthand.

Ultimately, rewarded by grinding, one son played four years of Division-III lacrosse on a team that twice had a Top 20 ranking in the ESPN/Nike College poll; another was cut from a Division I football team and played on a club lacrosse team that won a national championship. The third is the only one to break through to D-1, playing rugby, though he is in that “three-fourths” participation category.

However, now that my youngest has left for West Point, I won’t be on the field any Saturdays this fall for the first time in 19 years, enjoying the athleticism and sweat and rugged American competition. And, yes, the blessed adversity.

Jeff Nelligan (JeffNelligan@yahoo.com) is the father of three sons who played sports at at Williams College, the U.S. Naval Academy and West Point. He is the author of “Four Lessons From My Three Sons: How You Can Raise Resilient Kids” (www.ResilientSons.com).