On the way to his son's baseball game on Long Island, sports writer J.R. Gamble tells me that his son, J.C., is quite a ball player.
"I have a lot of clips and highlights that I show people of him doing amazing things — jumping over catches, hitting balls right-handed, hitting balls left-handed," Gamble says.
Part of the reason his son is so good at baseball, Gamble explains, is that he started at an early age — a very early age.
"When he was about 14 months, I put a golf ball in his hand to let him know how a baseball would feel when he got older," Gamble says. By age 2, J.C., was hitting and throwing the ball. By age 3, he was playing organized T-ball.
Since then, Gamble says, he has spent quite a bit of money on baseball for J.C. — bats and gloves, league fees, hotels, gas and more — and it seems a good investment. Several people have told Gamble that his son looks like he's good enough to play professionally one day. School will remain J.C.'s top priority, Gamble says. But he has high hopes for his son's baseball career, too.
"I'd love it if he went pro," Gamble says. "I'd quit whatever I'm doing and just go be at every game."
We stop to pick up J.C., and I'm expecting a teenage Derek Jeter — someone tall and muscular. So I'm rather taken aback when Gamble introduces me to his son.
J.C. is just 9 years old, and about 4 feet 6 inches tall. He's wearing a crisp white baseball uniform and a blue cap with a "D" for his team, the Brooklyn Dukes. His dad calls him by the nickname "Little Legend."
"My dad gave [the nickname] to me when I was 3 years old," J.C. says. "I had just started playing baseball. And when I got my first hit, he just started calling me 'Little Legend.' "
His dad laughs, and adds, "I had to make sure that he was the goods first. I didn't just name him before I saw that he was pretty good."
J.C. now has his baseball future all mapped out. "I'm going to go to Stanford and get a scholarship, and then I'm going to go to the Yankees in the MLB draft," he says.
Those big dreams aren't all that unusual. According to a recent poll from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 26 percent of U.S. parents whose children in high school play sports hope their child will become a professional athlete one day. Among families with household incomes of less than $50,000 annually, the number is 39 percent.
According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, only a tiny percentage of high school athletes actually go on to play professionally — roughly 1 in 168 high school baseball players will get drafted by a Major League Baseball team, and just 1 in 2,451 men's high school basketball players will get drafted by a National Basketball Association team.
"It's extremely difficult to make the pros; we all know that," says Tom Farrey, the director of the Sports and Society Program at the Aspen Institute and author of Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children. Yet, in recent years, he has started to see a shift among the parents of kids playing youth sports. "The difference is that a lot of parents today see those odds and say, well, I'd better get started early with my kid."
Farrey says more and more parents are putting their children on travel teams, hiring private coaches, and having their kids play a single sport year-round. They "basically feed these kids sports with a fire hose from a very early age," he says.
Farrey says some parents are simply following their child's passions and aptitudes. But some push their kids into competitive sports early because they believe that's how their child will get an athletic scholarship or become a professional athlete. Now, there are some famous examples of the latter strategy paying off, he says — Andre Agassi, Serena Williams and Tiger Woods were all groomed for success basically from the time they could walk.
"But for the vast majority of [professional] athletes, that's not their path," Farrey says. "They played multiple sports when they were young. It was not about chasing the college scholarship or becoming a pro; they were just enjoying the games and falling in love with sports."
It's that love of sports, Farrey says, that drives kids to keep playing and to become successful — not just their parents' dreams.
Parents who are too enthusiastic sometimes create problems, says Dr. David Conant-Norville, a child psychiatrist with the International Society for Sports Psychiatry. About 20 years ago, doctors noticed a worrying trend: more and more parents obsessing over their kids' athletic careers.
"They would spend all the family's money," says Conant-Norville. "They would spend all the family's time. They would ignore all the other children. They would ignore school — just to push children to be successful."
Doctors developed a name for this extreme behavior: achievement by proxy distortion. The idea is that, if the kids are successful, the parents feel successful. The parents may have good intentions, says Conant-Norville, but the behavior can be extremely harmful to children.
"It really leads to a lot of anxiety, a lot of depression, a lot of family discord and traumatic childhood experience," he says.
One person who has seen this firsthand is Cobi Jones, a sports broadcaster and former professional soccer player who competed in the Olympics and three World Cups, and was elected in 2011 to the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
Growing up in California, Jones had a close friend whose father pushed him very hard and made his friend's life miserable.
"I can't tell you how many times we would just be sitting and talking, and he would not have any nice things to say about his father," Jones says.
Jones is now an ambassador for the U.S. Soccer Foundation, and has made it something of a mission to help parents put professional sports in perspective.
Wanting your child to be a college athlete or even play sports professionally is "a great goal to have," Jones says. "But I think it needs to be tempered with the sense of understanding that, most likely, your kid is not going to be a professional player."
Jones is taking his own advice. He's the father of two young boys and says he's careful not to pressure them into trying to follow in his footsteps.
"If you came into my house, you'd see that I don't have soccer stuff in my house at all," Jones says. "I don't want this to be something where they have to look at, 'Oh, Dad did this,' 'Dad did that.' "
Because it doesn't matter to Jones whether his kids become great soccer players or professionals, he says. He just wants them to love sports — and to benefit from being part of a team.
Our summer series Sports and Health in America has been based on the results of our poll with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.