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?
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.