Westport Writer Stirs “Niche Sports” Hornet’s Nest

A mother whose daughters are fencers — and who compete in cutthroat tournaments nationally — has an epiphany:

It’s the Fourth of July. (My husband is) in Ohio; I’m in California. What are we doing to our family? We’re torturing our kids ridiculously. They’re not succeeding. We’re using all our resources and emotional bandwidth for a fool’s folly.

Yet she

didn’t know how to make the folly stop. The practices, clinics, and private lessons continued to pile up, pushing everything else off the calendar (except for homework; the woman knew her girls had to be outstanding athletes and outstanding students to get into the right school).

“’We just got caught up in it,” she says. “We thought this is what good parents do. They fight for opportunities for their kids.’”

That’s the opening anecdote in a long, harrowing Atlantic story about youth sports.

Titled “The Mad Mad World of Niche Sports Among Ivy League Obsessed Parents,” it focuses on fencers, rowers, and squash, water polo and lacrosse players — “niche athletes” — in Fairfield County.

None of the examples specifically mentions Westport. But the writer — Ruth S. Barrett — lives here. Her stories are not far from home.

The Atlantic illustrated Ruth Barrett’s story with this time-lapse photo by Pelle Cass.

There’s the Darien parent who says, “There’s no more church. No more friends. We gave it all up for squash.”

Barrett writes about the “excessively ornate … circular logic” college sports ecosystem that rewards athletes in once-less-popular sports whose families can pay their own way at private colleges.

The pool of those athletes has grown. But the number of spots on teams has not.

As Barrett notes bitingly:

Alpha sports parents followed the rules — at least those of the meritocracy — only to discover that they’d built the 80th- or 90th-best lacrosse midfielder in the country. Which, it turns out, barely qualifies you for a spot at the bottom of the roster at Bates.

When COVID hit college athletics hard, the rat race seemed over. Inside Lacrosse CEO Terry Foy told Barrett:

The kid who would have gone to Yale now goes to Georgetown. The kid who would have gone to Georgetown now goes to Loyola. On and on. And then eventually you get down to Wentworth. And then you just don’t play college sports.

But it was only a temporary pause. Parents are as determined as ever to have their children — in whom they have invested untold amounts of money, and incalculable hours of driving, cross-country travel and competition-watching — find a spot on a college team.

And — it goes without saying — an elite one.

“What parent wants to have a child who’s going to be playing for a bottom-tier school with bottom-tier academics in the armpit of the United States?” the mother of a water polo player in Stamford asks. “I want to be polite. But there’s no way in hell.”

Barrett is unsparing. She writes:

Amid the shifting norms, there’s a growing sense of unease among suburban parents in niche-sport hubs—a dread that they went too far, failed to read the room. And they’re not wrong.

“It’s easy to stereotype the Fairfield County player,” says Lars Tiffany, the men’s varsity-lacrosse coach at the University of Virginia. “The Fairfield County player is the rich kid who still has his umbilical cord connected: the kid who doesn’t really have to take ownership of his mistakes or actions.”

Tiffany insists he doesn’t buy in to such broad-brush stereotypes. “We try not to care where they’re from,” he says. And yet, “if they’re from a hotbed, there’s an expectation level.”

He elaborates: “Do I hold the Fairfield County lacrosse player to a higher standard? Of course. You just know he’s been coached up. So flash-forward to me watching a [high school] junior on the lacrosse field. The thought is going through my brain that I like his skill set but there’s room for growth.

“But then I think, Wait. He’s already had a lot of people working on these things. He’s a little tapped out. Maybe I’ll take a player from Northern California or Texas. Someone who hasn’t been exposed to such elite coaching. Someone whose best lacrosse could be ahead of him. You try to tell yourself not to overanalyze, but you do.”

There’s much more in Barrett’s Atlantic piece, including a harrowing scene with 2 squash players at Stamford’s Chelsea Piers.

“The vibe was primal and strange,” Barrett writes.

“I was half-expecting Grace to chop off Emma’s ponytail and hold it aloft. This was the junior-squash world at its pre-pandemic apogee—the Hunger Games for the ruling class.”

There’s the example too of squash parents who “install pros off tour in their guest homes or in-law suites, to be available for private instruction on demand.”

How do young athletes cope? Some burn out. Barrett cites an NCAA survey that mentions “off-the-charts” binge drinking and drug use by lacrosse players.

Remember that fencing family in the opening anecdote? Barrett goes back to them. During the pandemic, the mother says:

The girls were lying on the trampoline, finding shapes in the maple trees. I realized that I’d never seen them doing that — just lying down on the trampoline together, giggling about different things. I think they’re going to look back on this period as one of the happiest times of their youth. It feels so good to get off that hamster wheel.

But that did not last. The next month, she took her daughters to a “secret bunker court” no one else knew about.

Barrett writes:

It’s a haunting vision: the ponytailed girls in hidden glass boxes training harder and harder, hitting straight rails along the line, faster and faster, even as the college spots melt away and the cultural sands shift beneath their feet.

(To read Ruth S. Barrett’s full Atlantic story, click here. Hat tip: Fred Cantor)

33 responses to “Westport Writer Stirs “Niche Sports” Hornet’s Nest

  1. Finally, someone wrote the story of this insanity. What’s sad is the parents think they are doing this to benefit their children and give them the advantages of the few….by beating everyone else to them, instead of just teaching them to be their personal best. What’s wrong? Our culture.

    • What’s wrong? It’s the parents They do it for themselves. They push these kids so they can go to the next Westport/Fairfield County cocktail party and brag to everyone that young Thurston, who is a 2030, has ‘verbally’ committed to Duke to play lax. Thurston is an 8 yr. old prodigy burning up the lax tournaments from here to Baltimore. Unfortunately by the time Thurston turns 13 he’s just another lax player/pick a sport. The parents are devasted It’s their way on dealing with their insecurities and past athletic inadequacies. Trust me, these parents are reading this story and they see themselves. I’ve spent far too much time near this type.

  2. Janette Kinnally

    All I can say is WOW! This article is truly sad to me. 😔
    One question I have is – do they have better lives as a result of all of this? Are they happier, more successful, more confident, more helpful, more compassionate individuals as a result? Do they have better lives? Would love to get other feedback on that. Have any studies been done on this? What were the outcomes?

  3. WOW, love this piece. We need to stop the insanity of grooming kids from the time they are 5 for elite sports. What happened to just enjoying the sport?

  4. Wow, I read Ruth Shalit’s (now Barrett) magazine pieces years ago, and am happy she’s back in journalism and living in Westport. I’m not sure, however, that this sports-crazy-wealthy thing is solely about getting kids into elite colleges.

    I know a mom — super high achieving Manhattan exec graduated from a high-end college — who bragged incessantly about her kid’s sports scholarship, even though it was only from a middling school, and there was zero financial need for a scholarship, of course

    So in this case, the driver was merely pride. Recognizing the kid was not a brain but good at sports, the mom used her money, contacts and well-honed nagging skills to coach him into the lower echelons of the NCAA.

    Also, let’s face it, we’re not living in an intellectual community anymore. Even if they went to Ivy League schools, most Fairfield County parents read balance sheets, not classics, and know how to solve marketing problems, not math problems.

    Coaching their kids on academics would bore most parents; coaching them in sports is a lot less of a challenge to the brain, and lets the wealthy do the things they enjoy most: buy things, and yell.

  5. I think the part that most upset me about this is the dynamic where the schools add these programs in order to enable them to relax admissions criteria for white students who have the means to pay full boat tuition. That is the real cost and shame of this. If a coach can walk on a squash or water polo player with weaker academics and know with confidence that student’s family can pay, that eats up valuable slots that could have gone to more deserving students with less means. So apart from the madness of parents trying to give their Fairfield County students an “edge” vs other Fairfield County students there is the damage this does to students who don’t have the means to participate in these overwhelmingly white sports.

    • Not sure this racial angle is correct here; more about cultivating wealthy alumni donors, I think. At the same time as indulging these niche sports, the colleges are genuinely working very hard to achieve diversity with disadvantaged minority groups and first generation college applicants. If there is a race discriminatory angle, it’s against Asian Americans who face quotas similar to those imposed on Jews in the 1st half of the 20th century.

      • I think this is a case where economics and race overlap, but not intentionally. Yes you are definitely right that schools are working hard to increase their diversity. The school my daughter attends has impressive minority and first generation numbers. What I meant is that this focus on sports predominantly played by wealthier applicants enables them to increase admissions among students who can pay in a way that ends up (perhaps inadvertently) creating a counter-force to those diversity efforts.See this earlier Atlantic article for a discussion of that topic:

        https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/10/college-sports-benefits-white-students/573688/

      • I loved the article. I think that the racial aspect is from a larger socio-economic place. Wealthy (largely white) people spend a small fortune supporting their kids efforts in niche sports (that, honestly few watch and which don’t generate money for colleges). These kids are accepted into elite schools for which they otherwise may not academically qualify. They’re taking up admission slots that might have gone to other students who can’t afford to participate in these sports. It was the whole scandal that caught up the celebrities last year.

        I thought the Princeton/Alabama gap was fascinating (acknowledging that the much larger school does skew the numbers).

        Compare this with the ‘popular’ sports – basketball (the ultimate low-cost “playground” game) and football (school – not travel squad – based, reasonably lower costs) that attract less wealthy participants. Of course those athletes (a much higher percentage of which are black) recruited to play major college ball generate millions of dollars for their schools without getting paid the market value for their labor.

  6. What is disturbing about these parents is how they fetishize a small number of schools , the Ivies plus 3 or 4 others (e.g., Duke , Stanford) and believe (and get their children to believe ) that their lives are failures if the kids don’t get in there.
    As a long time professor in a low rent state university, I can assure these parents and their kids that undergraduate learning at their “prestigious” places is overrated and that a fine education and friendships can be found outside their short list of “do or die” acceptances . Of course, there might be fewer bragging rights but does it really matter after all ?
    ADW Staples 1956

    • Peter Gambaccini

      It’s a Northeast (and largely suburban) obsession. I had a conversation with a friend from down South who said that if someone was seeking a successful business or law career in South Carolina, a diploma from The Citadel meant more than one from Princeton.

      • But it is not just Northeast obsession. I know of a Minnesota financial executive who sought to build a 27,000-square-foot indoor ice arena for their two boys, aged 10 and 11. Neighbors in the suburb objected because they somehow felt it was too commercial. Plans included parking spaces for 33 vehicles, four team/locker rooms, men’s, women’s and unisex restrooms.

      • The Citadel is the West Point of the South, meaning it’s just as much of an obsession for southern parents. The more regional obsessions (like Ole Miss, Tulane, Emory, Vanderbilt) are the same flashy object that some parents have in the NE outside of the ivy+ group (I’m thinking Hamilton, Colgate, Skidmore, Bucknell, etc)

  7. Having witnessed first-hand throughout Fairfield County what parents are willing to do for their “little athlete, Johnny/Jennie”, whom the parents believe are stud athletes, OR will be studs after countless private instruction, lessons and travel teams($$$$), the real issue is that the parents want “it” more than the kids do. The vast majority of parents are DELUSIONAL when assessing how good their kid really is, and if the kid is in fact decent, wait until they get out of their town/county and have to compete against a much bigger pool of talent.
    To that end, parents who haven’t gone through this process YET, please please listen to this—–let the kids choose where THEY want to look at for schools, not where YOU and YOUR HUSBAND/WIFE want them to look.
    After all, aren’t the kids the ones that are going to be going to school, not you?? If they can play their sport of choice at the colleges that they want to go to, that’s icing on the cake….but to choose a college based solely on a sport rather than the college itself is a nightmare waiting to happen for the kid
    in SO MANY instances. Why? For many reasons, but here are a just a few: because coaches that recruit kids quite often leave after the kid has enrolled and the new coach and the player don’t see eye to eye, or the kid gets injured and his/her playing days at college are possibly over and the kid says to him/herself, “Now that I’m not on the team, I realize that I hate this place and I only came here because I was recruited to play “X” sport, but now that I’m not playing there is nothing appealing to me about this school.”
    Parents…….this happens time and time again. Let the kids drive the college research and decision process on where they would like to go.
    It’s not about the parents and their hoped-for bragging rights.
    Let me rephrase that……too often IT IS about that, but it shouldn’t be……and if in your case you make it that way, regret may be coming down the line for you and your spouse……. and your child.
    Your regrets I don’t care about because you should have known better.
    Think about your child.

    • Spot on Tim, let’s hope it resonates. I encourage parents to read the story again, read Tim’s reply again. It’s not about you, ‘it’s about the kid.’ (stolen from Good Will Hunting but I’m sure you all get the point)

  8. So many wonderful but wacky and worrying things about youth sports. And not just the specialized sports — similar things are happening in the big team sports as well. I know a guy who writes middle grade books about this subject, and they’re supposedly pretty good. 🙂 The next one is coming out in March. https://www.amazon.com/Rivals-Tommy-Greenwald/dp/1419748270/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=rivals+by+tommy+greenwald&qid=1596487481&sr=8-1

  9. As a Westport parent with two children in high school this is so disappointing to read. Clearly the jig is up on squash and water polo. While its too late for us high school parents, there’s still time for middle schoolers to discover the next sport that offers an Ivy ticket. Here’s a start: https://www.amexessentials.com/niche-trend-sports/. Personally I think Underwater Hockey and Chess Boxing hold a lot of promise for maximizing our childrens’ college prospects.

  10. Gee…, and Lori Loughlin’s name is nowhere to be seen in Comments. What does that mean?
    My wife and I hail from Westport. Our sons were raised in assorted East Coast towns, first Branford, where they came home from school early in their elementary years and said, “There’s nuthin’ to do…!”
    The next week they were playing in a Rec League soccer group. Then came swimming. Then basketball, baseball/LL. More soccer and repeat seasonally. So many sports, so little time. Weekend swim meets for two, three days. Nuthin’ to do….
    LAX showed up in high school. Water polo, too. But it was all the boys. We were chauffeurs, Did laundry, booked them on their homework ’til it was done. What came of all that?
    All-American swimming and water polo. All-American baseball, with a trip to the Div III world series.
    They appear to be well-adjusted and raising families.
    I can’t imagine any other way to get it done.

    Best of luck to all athletes and parents. Keep your horizon level and in focus.

  11. DIII baseball schools, or any DIII schools for that matter do not offer athletic scholarships. Merit yes, academic, yes, not athletic. No matter how you spin it. I guess the point of Ruth’s story is no parent’s are spending money & time trying to get their child looks at a DIII school as stated by that lovely Stamford mom.

    • James, you are right that D3 schools do not offer athletic scholarships. But neither do the Ivies. I think a top D3 academic institution such as Williams is absolutely considered a very desirable school by many parents and kids; and, as with the Ivies, success in a high school varsity sport can help pave the way for admission. The recent lawsuit against Harvard showed just how helpful being targeted as an athletic recruit by the coaching staff can be in the admissions process.

      All I can say is, I am very thankful I grew up playing sports in the 1960s because there was no parental pressure of any kind on us, recruiting in my sport (soccer) was virtually non-existent, and we had the great joy of playing in lots of pick-up games. On the other hand, this was pre-Title IX so, for girls, unfortunately the opportunities were much more limited then. So, in that respect, things are clearly better now.

  12. Ms. Barrett’s Atlantic article is superbly well-written and probes way beyond its ostensible focus. There’s a message here about the dysfunctional values that seem to be overwhelming America’s upper classes. The parents portrayed here are making themselves miserable and setting their kids up for failure. Nobody wins in the end because nothing is ever good enough.

    I’m a firm believer in the social benefits to be derived from healthy competition, but this is something else.

    The phrase “Hunger Games for the Ruling Class” is one that became stuck in my mind.

  13. And at the end of the day, nobody gives a damn where you went to college unless a) they went to the same school, b) they went to an arch-rival school, or c) they are more impressed by nonsense like what decals are on the back of your car than by who you are and what you’re capable of.

    Youth sports is supposed to be about learning some lessons for life, not about what school you get into or how much better you may be than your neighbour or classmate at some defined set of tasks. If you’re talented or gifted in your chosen sport, fantastic! If you just plain love it, even better!

    But otherwise, youth sports is supposed to teach you how to show up on time, how to work together with others toward a goal, how to set goals and stick to a regimen, how to take instruction and internalise the lessons, how to lose with dignity and win with grace. The rest is window dressing or worse.

  14. The root cause beyond athletic competition and cocktail party cache is that the elite colleges are still the gate keepers for American success. Although this is contrary to the American success story narrative, we all know its still largely true. And yes, some achieve great success coming from community college or state schools, but you only need to look at the places your fellow residents are alumni of to connect the dots between college and future financial success in a town like ours. Not saying that is right, or fair, but it is honest. I have always found the exception to that rule to be job-focused schools which largely turn our alumni with better outcomes (engineering or STEM based schools (Olin, Cooper Union, Embry-Riddle), coop schools (Northeastern, Drexel), or schools with particularly strong alumni networks (Penn State, Michigan).

  15. Great article, fantastic read – Well done Ms. Barrett. All I can add is that I’m glad we left Connecticut and now live in Massachusetts, where this kind of madness could never happen.

  16. Here is US Squash Association response to the Article:
    In Response to the Recent Article in The Atlantic

    Many of you have read or heard about the recent article on youth sports in the November 2020 issue of The Atlantic magazine. We are disappointed by the portrayal of the sport loved by so many of us. It is unfortunate the author used an outdated and distorted image of squash to sensationalize the article’s premise, and in the process denigrated valued members of our community, and the squash community at large.

    We understand that there are challenges in society that impact the youth sports culture in America. There are macro issues regarding college admissions in this country. Undue pressure on kids (and their coaches) to succeed is part of every youth sports’ culture. And increasingly the U.S. has a concerning gap in opportunities for kids across the socioeconomic spectrum to participate in and benefit from youth sports.

    US Squash’s mission is to increase access, support lifelong engagement, encourage sportsmanship and achieve excellence. Articles such as this make us that much more determined in the ongoing pursuit of our mission, and we see evidence of progress everywhere.

    This includes the growing number of Community Affiliate programs nationally, the infrastructure investments we’ve made to support the community’s efforts to expand access, the opening of our own facility in one of only 22 federally-designated Promise Zones and our consistent emphasis of the value of good sportsmanship.

    Tests to the fabric of our community such as this provide a clear reminder of just how much the sport brings to our lives, our families and our community. The values of fairness, courtesy, respect and personal accountability are learned and reinforced in squash. These shared values are embedded in the sport itself – they bring us together as a community through deep and abiding friendships.

    US Squash’s commitment has never been stronger to our vision: for people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds across the country to be able to enjoy squash, play the game with a positive spirit, and participate in programs that foster camaraderie, facilitate competition and encourage healthy lifestyles.

    With your involvement and support, US Squash and the squash community will remain focused on our mission-based work.On

    • Looks like the article struck a nerve. The Association response doesn’t challenge the article’s veracity. Ms. Barrett was apparently correct.

  17. The best way to end this madness is for the colleges to stop giving admission preferences in the case of these expensive, elite sports. The children of the millionaires and billionaires will be poised to do just fine competing for college admission and in life without them.

    • This madness is antithetical to the complaining about affirmative action and equal opportunity we hear from the plaintiffs in the Harvard lawsuit – that all applicants be treated fairly. That is what they purport to desire – fairness. Well, it is not fair to admit these kids to elite colleges because their parents can afford to have them molded into elite squash players, rowers, etc.

  18. Great article. Exposes how the one percent but their kids’ way into elite schools. I guess it’s less blatant than donating a building?

  19. I loved the article, which broadly rang true, but there are some questions about the writer and the veracity of the piece. While I am in no position to judge, I would say that embellishments in order to serve a thesis only undermine the case being made.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/10/24/ruth-shalit-just-wrote-atlantic-would-readers-know-it-byline/?fbclid=IwAR2jvdWEK9xon2SxmEN4VcfBaM9NNKLcEljqH73bKCQ_Wt3ej_FbnXWCN_M

  20. I love the article… Nice post

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