Former Olympian, AJ Mleczko Griswold, Struggles with the Competitive Nature of Youth Sports

Aj Coaching

(By Guest Contributor AJ Mleczko Griswold)

The culture of youth sports today is a constant source of frustration for me.

I love sports and playing them throughout my childhood offered me so many life lessons. I want my children to also reap the benefits of participating in a variety of activities. I don’t need them to be the best at their sport(s). Nor do I need them to play on the best team(s).  My primary goal is that they have FUN. I know there are some days they will enjoy it less than others, but overall, I want them to come back to the rink/field/court with a smile.

What I do demand, is that they are given the opportunity to play as many different sports as they want to play. With the youth season today lasting so much longer than it used to, however, the negative side effect is that my kids play soccer, hockey, lacrosse, baseball, run track … and they all conflict with each other so we have to make choices.

In our family we go seasonally (In Sept/Oct, soccer takes precedence over others, for example).  But I worry that this takes away from the lessons that sports give about commitment – you join a team, you show up.

We all want our children to succeed.  But there are so many different paths to success. The path I took to becoming an Olympic gold medalist is not even an option for my kids today since the landscape of youth sports is so vastly different now. I didn’t even have the opportunity to play on a girls’ team when I started playing hockey at age 6. It is exciting that my two daughters can play on all girls’ teams as a part of very successful programs. I grew up not knowing that I would ever have the opportunity to play hockey in the Olympics … because it was not even an Olympic sport when I was a kid.

AJ and daughter

Maybe that is why I struggle so much with the specialization that we are seeing so much of now. If my child plays soccer only in the fall, for example, and his/her peers are playing indoor soccer all winter, come springtime, the other kids will be better. I believe kids will catch up at some point, but that initial sense of being “rusty” or being worse than someone you were even with only a few months ago strips some kids of that fragile confidence that sports can offer.

I don’t need my kids to be the best, but I want them to feel good about themselves and build confidence and self esteem. And the “keeping-up-with-the-Joneses” attitude that prevails today makes that tougher and tougher.

Although hockey is my area of expertise (as an athlete, as a coach and as a broadcaster) I think all sports teach similar lessons:

  • commitment
  • sacrifice for the greater good
  • determination
  • teamwork
  • humility
  • confidence


The list goes on and on and that is why, as a mom, I encourage my children to play sports. LOTS OF THEM.



AJ Mleczko Griswold is an Olympic Gold and Silver Medalist, a broadcaster, a mother of four, a coach and a hockey fan. Follow her on Twitter .


  1. Way to go AJ! So missing the Winter Club house league days! Missing, too, season sports!! Keep writing; keep the discussion going- our kids need these advocates!


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