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.

For Parents: A Practical Guide From Soccer Manager Alex Perdikis

As a parent, team manager and former student athlete himself, Alex Perdikis knows about the benefits of kid team sports. He also realizes that parents have the power to make team sports a fun and healthy activity or create a living nightmare where children drop out. Here is a practical guide for parents that outline best practices that build interest, encourage and support children who play team sports.

Pushing: Yes or No?

It’s not a problem if your child shows an interest in and has an aptitude for a team sport. No need to push. But, what if your child shows no interest? You know the benefits. Sports builds confidence, teaches people skills, develops problem-solving skills and promotes an active and healthy lifestyle. Children who participate in team sports are less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol or become obese. They also tend to get better grades. With all of those advantages, why shouldn’t you push?

A little encouragement may not be a bad thing. Far from a “push,” encouragement includes different techniques to draw your child out and perhaps open the door to interest. Here are some ways to open your child up to the possibility of playing a team sport:

  • Go to games and practices as observers: Children are frightened of the unknown. Getting them comfortable with the game atmosphere, team play and environment removes the fear of the unknown.
  • Play in your own backyard: No pressure, play for fun backyard games can reveal hidden talent and set the stage for more organized competitions in the future. Whether it’s baseball, soccer, basketball or football, kid team sports should be first and foremost fun.
  • Talk about it: It may not be a total lack of interest that stops your child from playing a team sport. They may simply be unsure. A few words and strategic questions can steer children the right way. For example, ask if any of your child’s friends play on a team. If so, would your child like to try, too? If you think your child might benefit from a specific sport, ask how the child feels about it. Discuss what your child likes and dislikes about the sport. Be positive and keep the focus on them, not about how proud you would be.

They’re In! Now What?

A recent study done by George Washington University associate professor Amanda Visek found a dramatic drop in the rates of children participating in team sports. Another study found that 70 percent who do play drop out by the age of 13. The top reason? Playing was no longer fun, and it was because of their parents. Parents couldn’t stop coaching, took over the experience and lived and died with the team’s wins and losses. It’s the duty of parents to encourage, support and keep it fun. Leave coaching to the coaches.