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.