By Ken Reed

At this point, the problems with the American youth sports system are well-known: it’s too expensive; the economic gap between the haves and have-nots is growing; specialization in a single sport is happening at younger and younger ages; overuse injuries are becoming more common, overbearing adults (parents and coaches) continue to take the fun out of sports for kids; high school sports participation is declining, physical education classes are becoming an endangered species; and the country faces an officials shortage due to the abuse officials face from fans and coaches.

The humongous challenge we face is how to effectively address these issues in a chaotic Wild Wild West youth sports environment — an environment in which there isn’t a national sports commission or federal organization to establish youth sports policy (like most Western countries have.)

Recently, Tom Farrey, founder and executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program, including the program’s Project Play youth sports initiative, wrote an excellent piece outlining 10 steps that if followed could vastly improve the youth sports system in the United States. It is well worth taking a few minutes to read.

Within the article, Farrey highlights several organizations that are getting youth sports right, including the Cincinnati Recreation Commission, which requires youth sports organizations that rent their facilities to require coaches to participate in four-hour sessions that cover first aid and basic skills, plus sections on organizing and running practices, communicating with parents, and treating children responsibly.

Farrey contends that in the absence of a national sports commission, American youth sports policy needs to start with the National Governing Bodies (NGBs) responsible for developing more than 50 sports in the country. That responsibility includes “serving as the ‘coordinating body for amateur sport activity’ at all levels, supporting research on sports medicine and safety, and growing participation rates.” Unfortunately, serving in that role is an unfunded mandate. As such, going forward, the NGBs should be funded by a federal agency, or perhaps the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, to carry out that mission.

Farrey’s essay has many other good ideas for improving the youth sports system. The challenge will be finding ways to coordinate and integrate ideas like the ones he proposes. Farrey recognizes the enormity of the challenge, but also its importance.

“Look, I’m under no illusions about the challenge of adjusting the model,” writes Farrey.

“There are plenty of entrenched interests fearful of change. But this much I also know from talking with thousands of leaders at all levels in sports over two decades: Just about everyone thinks we can do better.

“Give them a seat at the table to work on the puzzle, and let’s see what they can do.”

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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