Youth sports, let’s bring back the fun!

One of my all-time favorite movies is The Sandlot. A classic tale of neighborhood kids, summer shenanigans, and life lessons learned from baseball. While the era of childhood has changed in many ways since the days of Benny, Smalls, Squints and Yeah Yeah, kids are still…well, kids.

Looking back on my own childhood, when it comes to sports, those are often viewed as the Glory Days (insert Bruce Springsteen background music here). My parents once added up the number of gymnasiums in which I played basketball tournaments from the ages of 10-18, and the number was well over 250.

Boy, have youth sports changed. The National Association of Sports Commissions now consists of more than 350 rights holder members or members who put on events. Now a big portion are organizations such as national governing bodies (NGB) of Olympic sports, or NCAA, NJCAA, NAIA, etc., but a significant number are youth sports organizers. Youth sports is a highly commercialized (thus monetary-driven) industry these days. Look no further than the implications on college basketball right now.

There is additional irony to note. Did you know according to the Sports Fitness Industry Association study by the Physical Activity Council, core participation among ages 6-17 have gone down over the last 5 years in all sports except hockey, fast-pitch softball, and lacrosse? The same study noted that among the same ages, the average number of sports in which kids participate has gone from 2.19 in 2011 to 1.89 in 2015. In other words, although 2.19 to 1.89 sports does not sound like much, it indicates kids are specializing in one sport much more frequently than in the past.

It’s also interesting to look at peak ages of sports participation. Basketball is 13, soccer is 10, baseball is 8, volleyball is 14, football (tackle) is 15. After these numbers, participation tapers downward.

Oh, and by the way, one out of every 6 children is now classified as obese. Check out this interactive trend chart by state.

These stats surely paint a gloomy picture.

So how is it, in the smartest, most technologically-advanced era, that this is so?

Well, there are a number of factors at play, and I’ll briefly touch on just a few. First, sport vs. athletics. Sport involves competition. Athletics involves physical activity and games of any kind. We’ve moved away from athletics (i.e., playing for fun) to sport (i.e., playing for competition). Studies have shown that when left to their own device, kids will actually organize, play, and self-govern their activities.

Instead, we see burnout, overuse injuries, specialization, access barriers for non-elite players, decreasing recreation opportunities, and rising participatory costs.

I had a wonderful conversation with a local youth sport organizer recently in which I heard a refreshing take on mission and objective. Yes, elite teams were a part of the conversation, but what struck me the most was his focus on access, play, and under-served populations, “We at the GGJSC will do everything in our power to help.”

Please note, this is not at all intended to be a drag on youth sports, these are just facts and the reality of the situation we face as a community.

Do you know the fastest growing sport among ages 6-17? It’s stand-up paddleboarding. And my guess is that it’s because kids can get out on the water, have fun, and they can’t hear their coaches or parents screaming from the shore!

As the great Michael Jordan once said “Just play. Have fun. Enjoy the game.”

Resources about Youth Sports:

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