Tag Archives: Ruth S. Barrett

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)