The Future of Youth Sports
Updated: Aug 23, 2019
The good news/bad news take on what's happening to your neighborhood youth league.
Good news: Youth sports participation is up. Bad news: The level of activity does not match the demand for healthy living. The Aspen Institute reports that from 2008 to 2017, the number of kids staying active at a healthy level dropped from 28.7% to 23.9%.
What's happening here? Flag football leagues, gymnastics camps and 3 on 3 basketball tournaments are all over. Let's take a closer look at what's going on behind the scenes.
Poor coaching: My whole blog series thus far has been dedicated to addressing the roles and responsibilities coaches have in improving kids' lives. Only 35% of coaches in youth sports are trained in their respective sport for technique, safety and injury prevention. Coaching is paramount in maintaining kids interest in youth programs and can be a huge liability when it comes to keeping them safe. Effective coaching should be a top priority when choosing a sport or fitness program. I've written on things to look for in coaches previously, see the article here.
Additionally, the overly-competitive nature of some leagues have driven coaches to become over-bearing and cut-throat at a time too early for most kids. Let's remember that a kid's primary motivation for participating in sports is to be with friends, not to win.
Expense/Accessibility: Travel team costs can reach and exceed $2500, not including the cost for parents to attend events and tournaments, which can be going on every weekend. Don't forget about equipment, uniforms and food. The sport(s) you choose will dictate your costs.
What effects will these trends in youth sports have on the kids participating? And those that don't?
With costs being a major factor in participation, parental income plays a role in kids getting the chance to play in different leagues. It also influences leagues' decision on where to form. Children from low-income households were half as likely to play team sports than kids from households making over $100k. These low-income kids are also 3x as likely to be physically inactive. This is somewhat discouraging considering youth athletics is a $17 billion industry, according to WinterGreen Research.
Travel: So how do the seasonally effected sport teams (football, baseball, softball, tennis etc.) in the north keep up with the play-all-year-round southern states? Travel. And a lot of it.
I remember my upstate NY travel baseball team’s trip to Florida to get a taste of upper level competition. Us short-season kids got a chance to run alongside the kids who hadn't seen temperatures lower than 45 degrees. I also remember the speech from my parents talking about how tough it was going to be to keep up my travel team's trips. Our team continued to win and advance to tournaments that seemed to get further and further away the better we did.
The road-worn travel team's competitive advantage drives squads in the north to make these long, expensive trips just to give their kids a chance when it comes time to be recruited for college.
Specialization: Parents recognize youth sports as a lucrative investment to get their kids free educations, promotion deals, and professional contracts. This prompts mom and dad to get their kids doubling down on one sport too early in a child’s physical development. It leads to overuse injuries and burnout.
ESPN posted an excellent article outlining the National Basketball Association's (NBA) recognition that early-specialized athletes are frequently damaged goods when it comes to recruiting top-tier talent. Regardless of their level of talent or potential in helping the team, the business side of sports is always looking for low-risk, cost-effective players.
And, it turns out, these elite kids whose bodies have endured 200+ games of basketball every season since they were 5 are "ticking time-bombs" when it comes to competing at the top. So think twice before you call your "promising" 5 year old a football-only kid. It will always be easier to make an athlete a football player, than a football player an athlete.
So with all the moving parts and invisible hands pushing our youngsters to be stronger, faster, higher-earning superstars, what room does that leave for sports to be what sports are supposed to be?
Youth sports are popular for a reason. They are the the mechanism and playground by which young minds learn life's most important lessons. So as kids' experience with sport begins to change, for better or for worse, so do the kids playing them. With this in mind, it's worth asking: What effects will these trends in youth sports have on the kids participating? And those that don't?
What do you think? Please leave a comment sharing what you think has changed in youth sports. Is your child getting the same out of their Little League baseball that you did when you played? Are they learning the life lessons they need?