Stemming the Tide: Bringing Kids Back to Youth Sports

By Alex Perdikis

You can’t argue with the numbers. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), the number of youth sports participants dropped 4.5 percent between 2008 and 2013. That’s approximately 2.6 million fewer kids. It’s a disturbing statistic.

Youth sports gives kids so many advantages, including improved physical and mental health as well as more productive brain function. The decline means that fewer kids reap these benefits. Why the alarming trend? What can we do about it?

Alex Perdikis
The Why of It

There are several factors behind the decline. A major barrier is money, or rather, the lack thereof. In areas where household incomes are low and school districts poor, there is no extra money to pay for youth sports programs, fees and related costs.

Other causes include the following:
Parents behaving badly: Stand on the sidelines of any youth sports competition, whether it’s soccer, baseball or any other competition, and you’ll see at least one – a parent behaving badly. You’ll most likely see someone yelling at an official, confronting a coach or screaming at their own child, or even a teammate, for making a “stupid” mistake. Some parents who behave this way think they are doing the right thing. Many have an ego problem – trying to live their own dreams through the child or feeling ashamed if their child doesn’t live up to expectations. Parents who do this zap every ounce of fun out of the youth sports experience for their child. Their behavior also negatively impacts the entire team.

Child endangerment: Parents don’t like to think of their child as a victim if they participate in youth sports, but it can happen. Any number of issues that endanger a child’s health and well-being can occur. Competition is a great character builder in its proper context. If kids feel too much pressure, however, it can lead to eating disorders and steroid and alcohol abuse.
Overuse injuries: Anyone playing sports can become injured, but overuse injuries are much of the time caused by adults, whether it’s coaches or parents, who push kids too far. Overuse injuries are highly preventable.
The businesslike environment of many sports organizations: Instead of putting the needs of the child player first, many of these organizations serve themselves. Business organizations place barriers to participation, including making arbitrary rules and developing strict rules that leave many players without choices.
Kids no longer enjoy the experience: Often, kids say they want to quit youth sports because they aren’t interested anymore, don’t like the coach, think playing takes too much time, feel too much pressure or don’t get to play enough. Some kids feel trapped into playing, which causes resentment. If it’s not fun, they won’t play.

Parents Step Up!

The first step in changing the downward spiral is for parents to stand up. Parents have to stop being a problem and become the solution. Pushing kids, hovering over them, screaming at others in a misguided belief that they’re helping their child has to stop. This kind of behavior not only impacts the entire team, but damages a parent’s relationship with his or her child. To be fair, it’s easy for parents to fall into the win trap. Every parent wants their child to succeed. But, many parents think that winning equals success. It doesn’t. Children are successful when they work hard, keep trying and play to their potential.
Parents who do not engage in destructive behavior also bear a responsibility. They can’t just remain silently on the sidelines. By speaking out and organizing with other supportive parents, they can change the youth sports environment and turn it back into a positive experience for everyone.

Money, Money, Money

The lack of money is an ongoing challenge. In many areas, churches, organizations and individuals are stepping up to fill the void. For example, Major League Baseball owns and operates the international organization Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (R.B.I.). Boys and girls age six to 18 are eligible. The organization has welcomed over 100,000 children to the program to date.

Another example is the InnerCity Players Basketball (ICP) league. Founded in 1997, the league’s goal is to teach basketball fundamentals as well as life fundamentals. Children go on field trips designed to help them develop positive life goals. Children aged eight to 17 are eligible. The program has a high record of success, with 100 percent of participants graduating high school and 90 percent moving on to college.

Grants are available in some areas as well. Obviously, lower-income children should not be left out when it comes to the opportunities youth sports provides.

Bringing the Kids Back

Clearly, youth sports is in a precarious state. But, as parents and coaches, we can make a difference. We have to take the lead, develop positive changes, make it fun and bring the kids back.

Do You Have What it Takes to Be a Youth Sports Coach?

By Alex Perdikis

So you’re thinking about becoming a youth sports coach. There is almost nothing as rewarding as working with young athletes, changing lives, building character, promoting teamwork and watching kids grow into strong, independent and caring people.

The values and skills kids learn when they participate in youth sports bring untold benefits throughout their lives. Working with young athletes is one of the most fulfilling jobs you can do. But, not everyone is cut out to coach.

How about you? Do you have what it takes?

Coaching Youth Sports is a Huge Responsibility

Coaching is vastly rewarding and also one of the most difficult jobs in the world. Working with kids is only half of it. You’ll have to deal with parents, administrators and a host of other adults, all with their own opinions that will sometimes be at odds with yours.

Coaching is also fraught with responsibility when it comes to the young players whose lives you’ll touch. Your behavior, style, lessons and actions will leave a lasting impact on every single player you coach.

What will your legacy be? Will the kids remember you as the “mean guy who called me names” or will you be remembered as someone who was supportive and made them feel strong and confident?

Coaching requires patience. That doesn’t mean you don’t have passion. It does, however, mean you realize you’ll be working with children, not miniature adults. Kids make mistakes. You’ll lose games because of them. It’s all part of a child’s learning process. If you rant and rave after a loss and ridicule team members, you’re not youth sports coaching material.

What Makes a Great Coach?

Coaches have different personalities and styles, of course. But great coaches share common characteristics that make them assets to the lives of young athletes. Here are the 10 top traits a great youth sports coach has:

  1. Has a deep knowledge of the sport. This should go without saying, but unfortunately it’s not always the case. That doesn’t mean a coach needs to know every obscure rule in the book. It means you have the wherewithal to research and investigate the rules if need be.
  2. Loves the game and the team. The key to passion is demonstrating a love of the game and the team as well. If you’re passionate, your team will be, too.
  3. Is committed to safety. Safety comes first is the motto of a great coach. Great coaches complete safety and first aid training, such as CPR, first aid, injury prevention techniques and various sports-related injury treatments. That includes not only what goes on in game play, but watching out for events that might put the team in danger. For example, outdoor games or practices may have to be called due to the dangerous weather conditions. Lightning, even if it looks far away, is no joke. As a coach, it’s your job to keep everyone safe, even if it means stopping in the middle of a game.
  4. Demands civility and respect. The coach is first an example of respectful behavior and then an enforcer. Great coaches don’t allow disrespectful behavior from players or their parents.
  5. Is flexible. Coaching is not a one-size-fits-all vocation. Rigid teaching methods won’t work in youth sports. You’ll have players with differing abilities, perhaps players of different genders and your team’s talents and capabilities will vary from year-to-year. The best coaches adapt training programs and teaching styles to meet the needs of the team.
  6. Knows his or her players. Each child is different. Each child needs personal attention. A great coach learns what each player needs to stay motivated and grow.
  7. Promotes teamwork. A great coach uses techniques to bring members together. Team-building activities such as parties, cookouts and fundraisers builds a bond between members and encourages teamwork rather than individual achievement.
  8. Has a way with words. The best coaches know how to communicate. They speak equally well to children and adults.
  9. Lives the life. Coaches lead by example both on and off the field. A coaching career goes with you to your home, job and social activities. It doesn’t matter what you do, you’ll have to uphold a high standard and a caring, empathetic demeanor.
  10. Is humble. Even great coaches make mistakes. Tempers are lost sometimes. When mistakes are made, however, they own up to them. They apologize. They make sure what happened was an exception, not a pattern. You’ll make mistakes. It’s how you deal with them that matters.

There you have it. If you think you can handle the job, by all means take the plunge. Being a youth sports coach is one of the most rewarding jobs you’ll ever have.

Creative Fundraising Ideas for Your Youth Sports Program

By Alex Perdikis

One of the biggest challenges for any youth sports program is funding. Budget cuts are a fact of life for youth sports, whether it’s a school, community, city, club or country organization.

The cost to administer programs, of course, has not decreased. In fact, costs increase every year. Most teams are on their own when it comes to raising money.

If your team lacks funds, and whose doesn’t, try some of these creative ways to make money for your youth sports squad.

Try Something Different

If selling candy bars is getting old and your “market” saturated, you need to try something new. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Rent-A-Kid: Get the players involved by offering their services to members of the community for a fee. Possible services include mowing lawns, yard clean up, reading to the elderly, baby-sitting, personal car washes or any number of other needs people in the community can use.

Community Talent Show: Who wouldn’t want to buy a ticket to see their neighbors up onstage singing and dancing their way into local stardom? Talent competitions are easy to setup and, if you can get someone to donate a venue, are relatively inexpensive to organize. Winners get inexpensive prizes and the adulation of their neighbors. Talent shows are great for another reason – they bring people in the community together and encourage support for the team and league.

Create and Sell Community Cookbooks: Almost everyone has a favorite recipe. Collect recipes from members of the community, compile them into a cookbook and you have the perfect fundraiser. Everyone who contributes will want to buy the cookbook just to see their recipe and name in print! Other community members will want one, too. Cookbooks are always in demand and the local touch will make this one even more appealing.

Professional Photo Sessions: If your community has a talented professional photographer, ask him or her if they’d be willing to do photo sessions for the benefit of the team. The photographer agrees to set aside a specific time for family and individual photo sessions with a portion of the proceeds going to the team.

Sell Website Ad Space: This relatively new idea works if your team has a website with a blog. The team can raise money by selling advertising space to local shops and vendors.

Sell Stuff: Selling products is the old standby, but you don’t have to restrict yourself to candy bars and cookie dough. Here is a list of items available for fundraising you may not have thought about before:

  • Pizza Kits: Kits typically contain everything the purchaser needs to make three complete pizzas.
  • Custom Sports Socks: Selling socks with team colors and logos is another solid idea. Custom socks are initially a bit more costly than other fundraising products, but typically sell well enough to turn a profit.
  • Trash Bags: Everyone needs them. Selling them is a breeze. Trash bags are inexpensive and come in bright, appealing colors.
  • Batteries: Batteries are another product that works well as a fundraising project. Everybody buys batteries, they may as well benefit the team when they do it.
  • Personalized Smartphone Cases: Customized phone cases offer a wide range of options including use of team colors, team logos, initials or pretty much whatever else you want. Everyone on the team and a lot of people in the community will want one. They make great gifts, too.

Unusual Fundraisers That Worked

Now that your creative juices are flowing, let’s look at some unusual but successful fundraisers different organizations used in the past to give you a few more out-of-the-box ideas.

Lucky Drop in Iowa: The Athletic Boosters of Keokuk came up with a novel idea that did so well they plan on making it an annual event.

The idea was to have a helicopter drop 500 numbered balls and one red ball from the air over a field. Contest winners would be six people who had tickets with numbers corresponding to the balls closest to the red ball and prizes to nine people whose ticket numbers corresponded with the farthest.

An aerial photographer agreed to donate his helicopter services, charging only for his travel expenses. The event was planned to coincide with game day to ensure a good-sized crowd. Event organizers, coaches and players sold tickets and teachers shared contest information with people on their email lists. The first Lucky Drop raised $1,700 and promoters plan to promote it more heavily next time.

Cleaning Up the Mess: Someone has to do it so it may as well go to a worthy cause. What is it? Cleaning the stands after the Indianapolis 500. Covenant Christian High School in Indianapolis works hard to clean stand sections and raises about $7,000 for the team after the big race each year. The speedway needs the service and the team needs the money. It’s a win/win.

Fundraising is not an option, it’s a necessity. Fortunately, there are countless ways to raise money for youth sports teams. Look outside the box for fundraising ideas. It’s possible to raise money and have some fun at the same time.

The Inspiring Truth About the State of Youth Sports

By Alex Perdikis

With all the news about youth sports gone bad, the most uplifting stories seem to get lost in the shuffle. That’s too bad because it’s a fact that youth sports is an overwhelmingly positive experience for most players and their families.

Good news rarely gets media coverage. With that in mind, here are some inspiring youth sports stories that’ll tug at your heartstrings and restore your faith in the human spirit.

Powering Past Adversity

Rashawn King was an ace football player for Middle Creek High School in Apex, North Carolina. A diagnosis of leukemia before his junior year changed all that. As Rashawn took the year off to battle the disease, support poured in. His team, school and community held multiple fundraisers, supporters camped out in the hospital lobby and friends flooded Rashawn with cards and messages of hope.

The Make-A-Wish Foundation caught wind of Rashawn’s struggle with leukemia and asked him to make a wish. Rashawn didn’t want a trip to Disneyland. Instead, to thank them for caring, he asked for a free school lunch for all 1,900 of his classmates, teachers and the school staff.

Rashawn roared back senior year and won all-conference honors.

Youth Sports and True Sportsmanship

Meghan Vogel was a state title winner in the 1,600-meter race for West Liberty-Salem High School, but was running in last place in the 3,200-meter final at the Ohio State track and field championships.

She had a chance to finish ahead of a collapsed competitor, but instead, Meghan helped the runner off the ground and ran with her across the finish line. Meghan made sure she kept her last place status. She explained her competitor had been ahead of her the whole race and deserved to finish in front.

A similar incident occurred halfway through a high school cross-country race in East Memphis, Tennessee. Seth Goldstein was in position to win or at least place high when he saw a collapsed runner in an obvious state of distress. Seth ran to his fallen competitor, turned him on his side so he wouldn’t choke and stayed with him until an emergency crew arrived.

Inspiration Comes in Different Packages

True strength and inspiration come in a lot of different packages.

You’ve probably heard about Bethany Hamilton. Perhaps you’ve seen the film “Soul Surfer,” which tells her story. The daughter of surfers, Bethany was raised in Hawaii and began competing as a child. When she was 13 years old, she nearly lost her life in a shark attack. She lived, but lost an arm.

Getting back in the water after the attack took every bit of courage she could muster. But come back she did. Two years later she won first place in the NSSA National Championships Explorer Women’s Division. She’s a professional now and shares her inspirational message of hope around the world.

What happens after a 12-year-old is hit by a car and suffers a permanently paralyzed arm? If you’re Jason Lester, you learn to swim, run and ride fast. You compete in Ironman and Ultraman competitions. Jason was the ESPY “Best Male Athlete with a Disability” winner in 2009. He’s won numerous championships, is an author and holds firm in his belief that stopping is not an option.

Chelsea McClammer was in a car accident when she was 6 years old. The accident resulted in paralysis from the waist down.

Chelsea loved playing sports before her accident and didn’t let a “little” paralysis stand in her way after. She became the youngest member of the U.S. Paralympic team in 2008. She raced in multiple competitions, setting a female course record at the Bloomsday Road Race in Spokane, Washington. She continues to compete and spreads a message of hope wherever she goes.

Kyle Maynard is a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. He was once awarded GNC’s World’s Strongest Teen title. He’s climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, owns a crossfit gym and is a motivational speaker for the Washington Speaker’s Bureau.

All are worthy accomplishments in themselves. What makes them even more exceptional, however, is Kyle was born without arms or legs. He still managed all of these amazing accomplishments.

Jessica Long was born with fibular hemimelia which forced doctors to amputate her lower legs when she was 18 months old. She learned to walk with prostheses and began her Paralympic career as a swimmer at 12 years of age. She came away from the 2004 Athens Paralympics with three gold medals. At the 2008 games in Beijing, she took gold four times, earned two silvers and a bronze.

Sure, we hear a lot about terrible coaches and parents behaving badly when it comes to youth sports. But there are so many inspirational stories we rarely hear. Youth sports is and always has been filled with amazing players who are an inspiration to people everywhere.

Let Them Play: Why Kids with Disabilities Should Play Youth Sports

By Alex Perdikis

There’s nothing quite like play when you’re a kid. Maybe it’s a neighborhood game of baseball, basketball or flag football, perhaps it’s playing on a youth sports team or maybe it’s a simple game of catch in the backyard. It doesn’t matter. The joy of play is part of growing up.

Team sports in particular offers benefits that last well beyond the playing field. But, for kids with disabilities, participating in youth sports is a challenge. As adults, we have to take steps to make it easier for children with disabilities to join in.

Why Youth Sports?

The benefits of playing youth sports are widely known. Belonging to and learning to work with a team of diverse personalities teaches children to get along, rely on one another, build camaraderie, promote  self-esteem, practice resiliency and develop problem-solving skills. All of these benefits lead to life skills that follow children as they grow up and become adults.

There are multiple physical advantages as well, including building muscular and cardiovascular endurance, coordination and flexibility. Physical activity promotes a healthy lifestyle.

Children with disabilities may struggle with self-esteem and have difficulty making friends. Disabled children are often less physically active and some have a tendency toward obesity. For kids with disabilities, engaging in youth sports offers a host of advantages that include improvements in both mental and physical health.

The Challenge for Kids With Disabilities

Children with disabilities face a boatload of challenges when it comes to playing youth sports. Some children feel frightened or insecure about joining. For others, finding a community program willing to welcome them may be the issue.

Parents, coaches, team administrators and program leaders may wittingly or unwittingly put up barriers. For every problem, there’s a solution. Here are a few:

Parent and child fears: Children with disabilities are often the target of derision. Parents want to protect their children and kids may be reluctant to participate in a new environment. It’s a parent’s job to keep their child safe. But, it’s also a parent’s job to let their child grow and learn to be a confident well-rounded adult. Youth sports is a great way to help children do just that.

There are several ways parents can deal with their own fears and that of their child. Meet with the coaches and explain your child’s disability. Provide ample opportunities for the child and coaches to meet and get to know one another. After a while, what was once a frightening situation is now less so.

Of course, if parents don’t like a program or feel a coach isn’t willing or able to deal with the child in a positive manner, they should look for another program.

Administrators fear liability: If a program has not had a disabled player on the team before, they may balk because they don’t know what to expect. Perhaps they fear the disabled child will be injured and the team or league held responsible. Perhaps they fear prosthetic or adapted equipment will lead to injuries to other team members. In some cases, team leaders may decide they just won’t accept disabled players.

Parents need to take the lead with administrators. Sometimes all that’s needed is a little education.

Any player can be hurt on the field. If needed, parents can assist coaches in making modifications to increase safety levels. Parents can also make safely modifications themselves. For example, if a child uses a wheelchair, perhaps adding extra padding to the chair to make it safer if other players run into it would help.

Pull all the decision makers, including coaches and administrators, into the discussion to get feedback, come up with new ideas and encourage acceptance.

If administrators still say no, consider organizations such as Special Olympics.

Team member fears: It’s natural for existing team members to feel a little unsure when welcoming a disabled player onto the team. Coaches are instrumental here.

One strategy is to have a team meeting where the child with the disability is introduced and welcomed. The coach then explains that the new teammate has a disability and discusses a little about what that means. The coach then opens the meeting for discussion, letting the kids talk, asking each other questions and getting to know one another. Before long, team members won’t see a kid with a disability, they’ll see a kid like themselves who may need a little help sometimes.

Youth sports provides so many benefits and kids with disabilities should not have to miss out. All children deserve the opportunity to enjoy one of childhood’s greatest pleasures.

How to Tell When Competition Gets Unhealthy — Warning Signs

By Alex Perdikis

Extracurricular pursuits are supposed to be all fun and games — until they’re not anymore. That switch can flip in an instant, seemingly without warning. If you’re not looking out for the warning signs of unhealthy competition, you could wind up putting your child at risk without fully realizing it.

Fortunately, recognizing the signs of unhealthy competition is a straightforward matter. These five red flags don’t by themselves prove that your kid is playing in an unhealthy environment, but they should give you pause if and when you see them on the field.

Authority Figures Stress the Importance of Winning

Winning is important, even in the egalitarian world of youth sports. But it’s not the most important thing at this level — not even close. Any coach or league figure who says otherwise is off base, plain and simple. If your child starts to internalize these messages, think long and hard about whether you want them to continue in such an environment.

Individual Performance Is Prized Above Teamwork

Kids play sports to get stronger, faster, better coordinated. They also play to have fun and work together as a team. Individual performance on the field is a crucial component of any team’s success, but it shouldn’t be the be-all-end-all of youth sports. Environments that prize individual performance and winning tend to be the most unhealthy, as they allow a handful of star players to monopolize attention and resources.

Insults Go Unchecked

The playing field is no place for bullying. Parents need to watch like hawks for evidence of verbal taunting, as it’s sometimes difficult to tell what kids actually mean when they speak. What sounds like reasonable banter might actually be entirely unacceptable.

Rough Play Is Rewarded

Rough play is another form of unacceptable competition, even in contact leagues that reward tackling and hitting. Referees and coaches have an obligation to interrupt and correct intense physical play, even if no one gets hurt. When the opposite occurs — for instance, when coaches cheer players for making unnecessary contact or berate referees for calling fouls — parents need to take notice.

Parents and Coaches Pressure (or Berate) Referees

Referees are much maligned and sorely underappreciated. While you’re not going to agree with every decision he or she makes, the spirit of healthy competition is predicated on respect for everyone involved in the game, including those charged with enforcing its rules. Watch closely for coaches or fellow parents who make sport of referees, who often aren’t much older than the players themselves.

Addressing Unhealthy Competition

Diagnosing unhealthy competition is the easy part. Actually doing something about it is a fair bit more complicated.

Your approach to unhealthy competition is likely to vary based on what’s actually taking place, the reactions of other parents, and the responses of coaches and referees on the field. Absent clear-cut cases of bullying or imminent physical danger to your child and others, the best course of action may be to wait until the game has ended to consult with other parents, coaches, league officials, and others in positions of authority.

Appropriately, addressing unhealthy competition is likely to be a team effort. If your parent cohort reaches a consensus that your children are in fact playing in a toxic environment, you’ll need to show solidarity and present a united front to the league — or, more awkwardly, to the parents or coaches responsible for the unhealthy competitive environment.

Like the children out on the field, you may sustain a few scrapes and bruises along the way. But, as they say in politics, those same children are counting on you to do right by them. Don’t let them down.

Here’s How to Help Your Child Choose the Right Sport

By Alex Perdikis

Trying to find the right team sport for your child?

The choice is overwhelming. Soccer? Baseball? Softball? Volleyball? Football? Hockey? Basketball? Lacrosse? And on and on.

Does your kid want to focus on one sport (or less) per season, or can she simply not get enough of team play?

How much time, energy, and money are you willing to put into your kid’s hobby? Can you ferry him to the ends of the earth — or, at least, your home state? Or does your job, family obligations, or personal sanity demand that you stay closer to home?

Your child’s choice of sport will be informed by these questions and many others. Let’s take a look at the major considerations involved in choosing the right sport for your kid, your family, and your own generous self.

Safety First

Safety is understandably top of mind for parents these days. We know so much more about the long-term dangers of contact sports like football and hockey than we did even a decade ago, and new information continues to dribble out of long-term physical and cognitive health studies. If your kid is set on playing a contact sport, make sure the league or program does everything possible to protect his or her safety. Be wary of opaque or uncommunicative programs that appear not to have players’ best interests at heart.

Gauge Interest

You might want your child to relive your own glory days as a star volleyball or basketball player, but does your child? Every parent knows that pushing a disinterested child into a particular pursuit is a fool’s errand, so make sure there’s a will before you show the way.

Consider Innate Skills

Where does your child’s athletic ability shine? Is he or she a lightning-fast runner? A rock-solid defender? A formidable thrower with impeccable aim? Different abilities produce different results on the field, diamond, or court. Before you suggest one sport over another, make sure your child’s abilities are complementary — or, failing that, that your child is willing to learn.

Consult Peers

At crunch time, your fellow parents are an invaluable resource. If you’re considering a particular league or program, ask parents who’ve put their kids through it to share their experiences — and, if you don’t like what you hear, think twice about your choice.

Plot Trajectory

Where does your kid want to end up? It seems premature to think about high school, let alone college, when evaluating athletic opportunities for your elementary schooler. But if your child has big plans to captain the high school soccer team or earn an athletic ride to a four-year university, you need to evaluate the competition they’re likely to face and determine what they need to do now to make their dreams a reality.

Know That There’s No Wrong Answer

The five preceding points will help you choose the right sport for your child. But they don’t have to lock you into a decision that you’ll come to regret.

Your child’s choice of sport isn’t irreversible. If he or she decides down the line that the whole soccer or softball thing isn’t working out, no binding contract or overweening sense of obligation need tie him or her down. It’s a great big world of youth sports out there, with a pursuit and position to fit just about every child.

And always remember that your kid is the boss. Even if you have hundreds of other things going on, as you surely do, check in periodically to make sure that his or her chosen sport continues to work out. Your kid’s physical and emotional health depends on your receptiveness to new information.

Why Every Child Needs to Play Youth Sports

By Alex Perdikis

Many athletes (and athletic parents) wrongly assume that the case for youth sports is self-evident. Everyone understands the importance of exposing kids to robust physical activity and the soft skills inherent in team-based activities, right?

Nope. Acceptance of youth sports is far from universal. Many parents have legitimate reasons to be leery, whether it’s the physical risks of contact sports like football or the potential body-image issues bound up in pursuits such as gymnastics.

Others simply don’t give much thought to the benefits of youth sports, focusing instead on academics and non-athletic extracurricular pursuits that tangibly prepare kids for the real world and enhance their appeal to selective colleges and universities.

Let’s face it: not every kid is going to be the next LeBron James. That doesn’t mean kids without generational athletic talent shouldn’t try their luck at youth soccer, basketball, softball, and the like. Let’s take a look at some incontrovertible facts about youth sports and explore the most potent arguments for why every kid deserves a chance to play.

Kids Actually Like Playing Sports

Shocker, right? Even the most bookish kids like to stretch their legs and quicken their hearts from time to time. Youth sports provide productive outlets for excess energy — better than traipsing unsupervised around the neighborhood or disrupting other kids’ learning in class.

It’s Healthy

The health benefits of youth sports have been well documented: lower obesity rates, lower insulin resistance, better cardiovascular health, better musculoskeletal health. These benefits can persist long after kids stop playing, even as their lifestyles become more sedentary — though studies show that people who played sports as children are more likely to be active adults. Parents looking to get their kids off the couch and out into the sunshine need look no further than their local youth soccer or Little League organization.

It Encourages Teamwork and Cooperation

No matter how self-centered kids are (and they’re very often self-centered), team sports have a way of putting them in their place. Not in a punitive or abusive sense, of course — rather, by imparting the value of cooperation and teamwork. Kids who play team sports are far more likely to work effectively in ever more collaborative higher education and work environments, producing results of which “armies of one” can scarcely dream.

It Teaches Crucial Life Lessons

Kids are optimistic by nature. Many children, especially those from privileged backgrounds, imagine that things will always go their way, that parents and others will always have their backs, that they can have or experience anything they want.

Well, that’s of course not how things go in the real world. Even though the stakes are (thankfully) not that high, every kid who plays youth sports experiences some measure of adversity: losing games, getting benched during crucial plays, facing down dirty play or insults from opponents. While painful, such experiences turn kids into well-adjusted adults ready to face the world with realistic expectations.

Scholarships Do Happen

It’s counterproductive for parents to assume that sporty children will qualify for athletic scholarships to their dream high schools and colleges. Only a tiny fraction of youth sports players make the scholarship cut, and an even smaller percentage go on to play professionally.

Then again, it’s realistic for talented young athletes to at least aspire to partial or full scholarships to the schools of their choice. For families on the lower end of the income scale, athletic scholarships create opportunities that simply wouldn’t be available otherwise — namely, the quantifiable and not-so-quantifiable benefits of four-year degrees from accredited colleges and universities.

Youth Soccer Prepares You Well for These 4 Careers

By Alex Perdikis

Compared with sports that require lots of equipment, like football and hockey, soccer is cheap and low-maintenance — kids need shin guards, socks, cleats, a uniform, a ball, and they’re good to go. Soccer is also easy to pick up and fun to play, even at the lowest levels of the sport.

So it’s no surprise that youth soccer is wildly popular. What’s more surprising, and certainly less well known, is youth soccer’s pedagogical power. For millions of American kids, soccer isn’t simply a transient pastime. It’s a stepping stone to lucrative, impactful careers — an activity that builds character and imparts life lessons that linger long after participants hang up their cleats.

Youth soccer is an especially powerful preparatory tool for kids pursuing these four common careers.

1. Architecture

Wait — a game that involves running around on a grassy pitch and trying to get a ball past your last opponent lays the groundwork for careers in architecture? Really?

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. One of soccer’s most underappreciated competencies is spatial reasoning: the ability to visualize objects in space and predict where they’ll turn up before they actually get there. That’s a critical skill for architects, too.

Turn on any professional soccer match and you’ll hear the announcers blathering about a team’s “shape,” meaning adequate spacing and ample passing angles between players. Teams that maintain their “shape” as individual players move up and down the field tend to create more scoring opportunities than teams that bunch or spread too thin.

Understanding “shape” is like riding a bike — once you learn, it’s hard to forget. Spatial reasoning is an innate human ability, but it doesn’t automatically switch on. Soccer is a reliable, and more importantly fun, on switch.

2. Nursing and Medicine

Soccer requires strong legs and formidable cardiovascular conditioning, even at the youth level. It’s impossible to watch a soccer match without being impressed by the players’ stamina. That’s sort of a metaphor for the famously demanding medical professions, where practitioners are often expected to put in 12- or 24-hour shifts without a second thought.

Though it’s not nearly as dangerous as football, soccer is also fraught with peril. Virtually everyone who plays youth soccer long enough sustains some kind of injury, whether it’s an easily treatable laceration or a more serious skeletal trauma. Seeing (or experiencing) such injuries firsthand is a powerful motivator for future doctors and nurses.

3. College and Career Counseling

Youth soccer inspires almost tribal passions in its adherents. If you’ve ever watched kids fire themselves up ahead of a big game, you know the true meaning of “team spirit.” Long after their playing days are over, kids can look back with fondness on memories and friendships made in the spirit of motivation.

And some continue to make those memories with members of the new generation. The difference between team sports and college and career counseling is one of degree, not kind. Great counselors draw upon deep reserves of motivational talent and passion, stored up in some cases for years or decades.

4. Physical Therapy

It’s not hard to see how a few years of youth soccer, and the inevitable aches, tweaks, and more serious injuries that come with it, can prepare kids for careers in physical therapy. There’s nothing like firsthand experience to lead one to one’s calling, right?

Injuries are tough to watch and even tougher to sustain, but most have an inspirational silver lining: the promise of recovery. For future physical therapists weighing the pros and cons of the calling, overcoming one’s own injury or helping one’s teammates do the same may be all the persuasion that’s needed.

Youth Sports: Why Aren’t the Children Playing?

By Alex Perdikis

What used to be a rite of passage when growing up – playing baseball, soccer, football, basketball or running track – is no longer a part of many children’s lives. Youth sports participation is on a serious decline. Even sports like soccer, which grew by leaps and bounds between 2008 and 2012, is experiencing a slowdown. What’s causing the lack of participation? Can anything be done to stem the tide?

What’s Missing?

Many experts, including Michael Bergeron of the National Youth Sports Health & Safety Institute, believe the missing element is fun. Bergeron says, “We have to be aware of single sport specialization, overuse, overworking kids searching for elite athletes,” which causes children to leave youth sports and never look back. Parents and coaches who focus on one sport, because of scholarship hopes or their own wishes, place tremendous pressure on youth athletes. For young athletes, that can lead to depression, burnout, chronic fatigue and unnecessary injuries.

The Cost of Youth Sports

The cost of participating in youth sports has skyrocketed. In 2012, nearly two-thirds of middle and high school students who participated in sports paid for the privilege. Costs have spiraled exponentially since then. According to a New York Times article, spending on youth sports can be greater than 10 percent of a family’s gross income. Travel, equipment and fees add up to an investment many families can no longer afford.

Are Youth Sports Safe?

Sports safety has come under intense scrutiny of late. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that the number of concussions among teens aged 14 to 19 who play youth sports rose a staggering 200 percent in the last decade. High profile professional football players, such as Chris Borland and A.J. Tarpley, retired after playing just one year in the NFL because of concussion and brain damage concerns. As more data on the long-term risks of youth sports comes to light, the ranks of youth sports players (particularly football players) are likely to thin further.

What Can Be Done?

Parents and coaches have a tremendous opportunity to expose children to the benefits of youth sports while minimizing the admittedly real risks. Follow these tips to encourage children to play — and play safely.

  • Give children a choice. Don’t push them into a sport because you think they’ll be good at it or you hope for an athletic scholarship later on.
  • Purchase the right safety equipment. Make sure all equipment and gear works as it should and fits correctly.
  • Emphasize good sportsmanship. Even better, practice it yourself. No yelling insults at parents, coaches, your child’s teammates or the competition.
  • Be supportive, win or lose. Encourage children to express their feelings about the competition and how they did, but remind them of what they did well. Emphasize the positive.
  • Don’t assume your dream is the same as your child’s. Most likely, it’s not.

The benefits of youth sports are numerous and well documented. Children learn to keep fit, build camaraderie, work well with others, build character, deal with diversity and become resilient through youth sports, all life skills they’ll use throughout the rest of their lives. Perhaps if parents, coaches and program administrators change their focus from cutthroat competition to fun for all, youth sports numbers will stop declining.