Youth Sports at a Crossroads

An article this past week in the Washington Post revealed something that many of us who work in the business of youth sports have known for some time: The number of kids who participate in organized sports is reaching a crisis level.

According to a survey by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, more than 26 million children ages 6 to 17 played team sports last year, but that’s down about four percent from the total in 2009. The total sports played have dropped by nearly 10 percent.

Some of the decline is blamed on the recession at the start of the decade, but experts say the dropoff in the suburbs is something to be concerned about, mainly because kids are being steered away from playing a variety of school sports and sent into elite competition. Children as a whole, according to the study, are playing fewer sports, and those who are left in school programs often are the victims of poor coaching.

With 70 percent of youngsters quitting sports by age 12, it’s easy to look at a reason why. And the reason, researchers say, often is the parents.

Mark Hyman, a professor of sports management at George Washington University, is quoted in the article as targeting parental influence as the main reason fewer kids are playing fewer sports. “If we wiped the slate clean and reinvented youth sports from scratch by putting the physical and emotional needs of kids first, how different would it look? Nothing would be recognizable.”

The Aspen Institute, the Clinton Foundation, and several amateur and professional sports organizations are studying the issue. Officials met at the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York, as well as earlier this year at a Washington summit attended by the U.S. surgeon general. Dick’s Sporting Goods asks for donations at the checkout counter for Sports Matter, a program to fund underfunded youth sports teams.  The NASC also picks a local charity or non-profit in the city of its annual sports symposium to boost youth sports activities.

Sports has become a way for parents to try to get college scholarships for their children, often starting them in one sports as a toddler and investing thousands of dollars in travel teams, equipment and individual coaching. Even though the odds of a scholarship, much less a pro career, are small, parents will take the gamble hoping for the next Tiger Woods or Mia Hamm.

The article also quotes a survey a professor at George Washington conducted on nearly 150 children. The kids identified 81 factors that contributed to their happiness in playing sports. Number 48 was winning. Also low on the list, playing in tournaments, cool uniforms, top of the line equipment.

The number 1 reason why kids quit? It’s no longer fun.

It’s up to the grownups to figure out how to make sports fun again for our youngsters, to keep them in activities that they can take with them well into adulthood, and, most importantly, to let them rediscover the fun in sports. Athletics can teach amazing life lessons to kids. Let’s make sure they learn the right ones.

Photo courtesy of the Greater Cincinnati Sports Corporation

Photo courtesy of the Greater Cincinnati Sports Corporation

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