By Ken Reed
Adults like competitive sports in general, and winning in particular. When it comes to youth sports, they like creating events that look similar to the pro and big-time college games they enjoy watching.
Kids, on the other hand, want to have fun playing with their friends and learning new skills without constantly being evaluated and compared to their peers.
That gap in expectations is gradually killing youth sports.
The Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society program says 36.9 percent of children ages 6-12 played a team sport on a regular basis in 2016, compared to 38.6 percent in 2015 and 44.5 percent in 2008. Pressure from adults — parents and coaches — is often cited by kids as the reason they drop out of adult-organized youth sports.
Meanwhile, individual sports like skateboarding, where adult involvement is limited, have grown in popularity among children and teens in recent years.
“The reason is that what parents want and what kids tell us they want are very different,” says Mark Hyman, a professor of sports management at George Washington University, who has written three books about youth sports.
“What we have now is pretty much what parents want, because it feeds their emotional needs and sometimes their financial needs.”
Yes, youth sports has become a huge industry and more and more adults are making their living off the backs of young athletes — as personal trainers, club and travel team administrators and coaches, youth showcase tournament organizers, etc.
The advent of elite youth sport — and the travel teams and other things that come with that — has also hurt communities, as parents and their kids often leave their home towns in quest of what they see as better sports opportunities elsewhere.
Arizona State professor Eric Legg says declining participation rates, sport specialization, and the rising costs of competition and travel within youth club sports organizations, is removing a tool that can bond communities.
“You’re losing this place where communities develop,” says Legg.
“Not that they can’t develop in other places; they certainly can, but I think sport is a particularly powerful place to do that. You’re losing something that’s community based, that’s getting along with each other. It might be overly simplistic, perhaps, but I do think you’re losing something with a structure where you’re creating elites, and the haves and have-nots.”
The growth of AAU and club sports is hurting the community-enhancing aspect of high school sports as well. A growing number of young athletes are choosing to skip playing high school sports in order to play on travel teams made up of kids from wide geographic areas. As a result, they’re missing out on the fun experience of playing in front of classmates, teachers, neighbors, the school band and cheer and dance teams, etc.
“If you just wiped the slate clean, if you were able to start from scratch and re-engineer youth sports, but this time you began where the central premise was the emotional and developmental interest of kids, that was your priority, you would have something entirely different,” says Hyman.
Different and better.
— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of FansPrint
- League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.