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.

John Oliver Is Right: Women’s Soccer Deserves Better

By Alex Perdikis

All it took was the 2015 Women’s World Cup Final between the United States and Japan. An estimated 25 million American viewers tuned in to watch the match, a giant leap in viewership from the 17 million who watched the men’s final the year before. Since the U.S. Women’s World Cup win, participation in girls’ soccer programs has surged.

The surge in popularity has not been without its growing pains however. Recent developments such as wage discrimination lawsuits and new programs to develop world-class players are working to challenge old assumptions while building on soccer’s growing popularity.

The Equal Pay Debate

The U.S. women’s national soccer team is more profitable, watched more and wins more than the men’s national team. In a lawsuit filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in March 2016, top female players, including Hope Solo, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn, accused U.S. Soccer of wage discrimination. Solo said, “The numbers speak for themselves.” The men’s team members, she added, “get paid more to just show up than we get paid to win major championships.”

The current debate is not the first time women’s soccer in the U.S. has struggled to gain respect. In the 1980s, there was no women’s soccer Olympic event and no Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup in which to compete. That began to change after Title IX became law. The federal civil rights law prohibited the discrimination based on sex of any federally financed educational program or activity. Public school programs were mandated to give girls equal access and training programs for sporting activities, including soccer.

One of the first beneficiaries of Title IX was Mia Hamm. Hamm, along with teammates Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett, dominated the first FIFA sponsored tournament for women, called “The M&M’s Cup.” But the U.S. public barely noticed.

The team finally caught the public eye at the 1996 Olympics. The women’s team earned less than the men and only earned a bonus if they won the gold. Playing on the largest stage of their lives, team members realized the opportunity they had to both gather a following and make a difference. After negotiations failed to reach a resolution, the team held a strike and refused to report for practice sessions. When the Olympic Committee failed in its attempt to bring in nonunion players, the team won the fight and went back to work.

Many believe the latest lawsuit, which has yet to be resolved, is simply the next step on the road to equality for women’s soccer and female sports in general.

Developing Tomorrow’s World-Class Players

U.S. Soccer announced early this year that it will launch a Girls’ Development Academy Program beginning in fall of 2017. The new Development Academy will impact thousands of young female athletes. Through specific curricula, training requirements, higher-quality games and added resources, the new program will focus on developing world-class players. The program’s core values include coaching and teaching athletes in a positive learning environment. Competition will range from local and regional matches to regional and national events.