The youth sports industry, which analysts estimate is valued at more than $37 billion, has become a market even bigger than the NFL. But that growth has come at a cost, says sports parenting coach and author Kirsten Schimke Jones ’93. She has observed a trend in which parents base their egos on their children’s athletic successes instead of their growth as people.
A former William & Mary volleyball star, Jones spoke about the topic alongside retired head volleyball coach Debbie Hill at an event titled “Women in Action” during the 2023 Homecoming & Reunion Weekend. Jones argues that raising children with those kinds of toxic values does much more harm than good when in reality, “All these kids need to hear is, ‘I love to watch you play.’” This advice and much more is detailed in her book “Raising Empowered Athletes: A Youth Sports Parenting Guide for Raising Happy, Brave, and Resilient Kids.“
As a child, Jones grew up in western Montana surrounded by many acres of wide open spaces — so naturally, she gravitated toward spending time outdoors building forts with her sisters, riding horses, skiing, snowmobiling and playing every sport that was offered including softball, basketball, and track and field.
During her freshman year of high school, her school offered volleyball for the first time, so she decided to try out. A gifted athlete, she quickly grew comfortable with the sport. Toward the end of high school, she learned about tryouts for the Junior Olympic Volleyball team. Even though she had limited experience, she took the leap and survived several rounds of cuts. She didn’t end up making the final team, but after learning that the San Diego State University (SDSU) assistant coach was on staff, Jones did not let the opportunity slide. She chased down the coach and secured an opportunity to play for SDSU, an NCAA Division I powerhouse. Jones red-shirted her first year and found the next two years of hard work yielded limited positive outcomes both on and off the court, so she applied to transfer. She sent a highlight reel to several universities, including W&M.
“I came home one day from class and there was a message on my answering machine — that’s what they did back in the day — and it said, ‘This is Debbie Hill from the W&M volleyball program, and you need to come to William & Mary.’”
Upon visiting campus, Jones knew W&M was the right fit because of its ability to combine a successful volleyball program with amazing academics. Deciding to major in East Asian studies, Jones became conversationally fluent in Japanese with the goal of pursuing a career in hotel management. She excelled on the W&M volleyball team and was named the Coastal Athletic Association’s (CAA) Player of the Year in her 1992 senior season. Several years later she was also named to the CAA’s 25th anniversary team, which recognized the top 25 players in the league’s first quarter century. In 2018, she was inducted into the W&M Athletics Hall of Fame.
Jones credits Coach Hill with much of her success on the team. Hill’s coaching philosophy was hugely inspiring to Jones, and even now, the two are still best friends.
“She’s such a great listener and I think that’s what makes her a phenomenal leader. She never came with an iron fist and said, ‘Do it my way or the highway,’ but rather, ‘Why are you trying that? Would you like some suggestions? Maybe you want to think about doing this or that.’ Which is what makes great parents. What makes great coaches, great professors and great bosses.”
After graduating from W&M in 1993 and realizing that she wasn’t finding the career opportunities she wanted in Japan, Jones moved to Eastern Europe to search for a new path. She met her future husband, Evan Jones, while they were both living in Budapest, Hungary, and after discovering their mutual passion for sports, love of travel and admiration for the brand, they both found jobs working for Nike, in Vienna, Austria, where the Eastern European offices were based at the time.
“It’s good to have big audacious goals, whether it’s playing on the national team, or playing at Stanford, or getting into Nike, whatever the big goal is,” she says. “Even if you don’t get there, you run into these other opportunities along the way that help you find your way and you will end up where you’re meant to be.”
Jones began working for the sports marketing sector of Nike’s Eastern European offices, later transitioning into footwear. Jones and her husband started their family in October 2000 while living in Amsterdam with the arrival of their first son.
After a few years, she was asked to lead a course at Nike's World Headquarters called “Product Creation University” in Beaverton, Oregon, where employees with varying levels of experience were taught how to continue innovating and marketing products for Nike. While teaching that course, their second son and daughter were born.
“Designing, developing and delivering that class was the genesis of what I am doing now. I was always trying to make it fun for the employees. I really love seeing people have that ‘aha’ moment of, ‘Ooh I know what I want to do now,’” she says.
Soon, Jones started to discover that she had a true passion for helping others discover their purpose. She left Nike in 2008 to follow a job opportunity her husband got in San Diego. She took some time off to care for her young kids, but eventually went on to get her life coach certification through a Tony Robbins program called Strategic Intervention.
Several years into coaching, Jones started a podcast called “#RaisingAthletes” (on iTunes/Spotify) where she discusses with her co-host Susie Walton issues she notices within the sports community, including parents’ misplaced priorities concerning young athletes. She recalls a conversation in which she heard parents at a game saying they had hired a private coach for their 5-year-old. Jones says that there is an incredibly harmful message being sent to these young athletes.
“The things that you are being told matters are outside of your control. If you got into this school, if you got this trophy, if you won this title. And what we’re not giving you value on is if you made your bed today, if you contributed to the family, if you were kind to somebody else, things that are within your control. Parents are so focused on them making the top team, but what happens when they don’t? And then who do they become in that moment when they feel like they’re not enough because, ‘All of my value is in my sport.’”
A fan of Jessica Lahey’s parenting book, “The Gift of Failure,” Jones looked Lahey up and discovered that she was attending an event in the LA area that day.
Jones says, “She was speaking an hour from my house, so I got in the car, I went and listened to her talk, and I literally could have finished every sentence she started. Afterward I went up to her and she was like, ‘Do we know each other?’ And I said, ‘No but we need to.’ I said, ‘I want to write your book, but through the lens of sport,’ and she goes, ‘Would you, please? I get that request all the time.’”
Her conversation with Lahey reinforced the idea that Jones had been ruminating with for a while: She was going to put her thoughts on the matter of youth sports into a book. At first, she had trouble knowing where to start.
“Seven years ago, I started trying to sit down with my laptop,” Jones says. “I would write a chapter and I would just get in my own way. I was like, ‘Is this boring, do people care?’”
She decided that a book coach would be a valuable asset to the writing process, and when she discovered Bob Welch, a former sports editor who had previously published 25 books, Jones says, “It was like finding Debbie Hill again.”
When the draft of the book was finished, Jones found an agent who agreed to meet with her, and she started to pitch her book to publishing companies in January 2022. A month later, she had two offers. The book, “Raising Empowered Athletes,” was published this past August by Triumph Books.
All along the journey of writing the book and podcasting, Jones has been raising her own three athletes. Her two older children, Caelan and Parker, have played Division I basketball at Boston University and Colgate University, respectively. Caelan, with his undergraduate degree from BU, is now pursuing an MBA from Claremont Graduate University while continuing to play on their basketball team. And her youngest, a daughter, Kylie, is a high school club volleyball player.
Jones hopes that after reading the book, parents will understand the message she wants to send. “It’s not about us parents — get out of their way. It’s not about becoming star athletes. My hope as a mom of three is that children have agency. You may not find your dream job for five or seven or 10 years and that’s OK. But you’re going to keep looking and you’re going to keep asking big questions. And you’re going to be OK with it not going perfectly all the time. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I got exactly what I wanted the first time that I tried it.”
As she continues to expand her network and market her book, Jones says her goals for the future are to establish a career as a motivational speaker and give a TED Talk. She recognizes that those goals intimidate her, but notes that her goal of releasing a book used to intimidate her as well before she actually ended up doing it.
“I had a career as a motivational speaker on my vision board probably 10 years ago, but I also had the podcast on there, the book on there. It’s one of those where it scares you a little bit, but that’s how you know it’s a good goal,“ she says.
Jones’ story is an example of how hard work, determination and a growth mindset really do pay off. Her perseverance and willingness to adapt to the path that she discovers for her herself demonstrate that not everything in life will be straightforward, and that is perfectly OK.
As Jones says herself, all you need to do is “just keep showing up.”