You may be among the lucky few who pay thousands of dollars per year to keep the $16 Billion+ elite youth sports industry alive and well, but as the great Sherlock Holmes, a fictional private detective imagined by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, would point out: it's the stuff we're not seeing that often provide the best evidence. Local community fields are empty. Childhood obesity rates in the US are up. Real talent is going undiscovered and undeveloped. What's more is the lessons that the simple life, family, and community-based lessons that youth sports are intended to deliver are being overshadowed by screaming parents, sexy uniforms, professional turf fields, and win-at-all-cost approaches to the game.
Public Enemy #1 - Pay to Play
The youth sports industry is a $16+ Billion with a B industry. Uniforms, shoes, fields, equipment, coaches earning a living... it's big business. If you're on a travel team and driving around a tri-state area to play soccer games, you might believe that youth sports is hugely successful. By measure of business or by how efficient it has gotten in its ability to vacuum money out of family wallets, it is! But if you are not seeing beyond the bubble of those who can afford to pay, then you're missing some really important stuff. Community youth fields are empty. Childhood obesity is up. Kids who are playing are getting bad signals from both sides of the sidelines & some of those kids are now old enough to be cutting you off in traffic!
It's not that youth sports isn't booming business. It's that families who don't have the means to buy into that business are being left behind or discouraged. I see it every season on my recreation fields. Numbers for recreational soccer in my are have been dropping by 17% to 33% per season. A lot of these kids are simply not playing anymore.
Problem #2 - Over Served Kids
While there are many kids who are underserved or not served at all in some communities, there is a growing number of kids who are over-served. The main characteristic of an over-served kid is one who is served a sport in excess. They may be specialized (aka limited to only one sport or one position) too early. They may be forced to practice more often than is recommended for their age group. They may be pressured by parents who are spending in excess for the sport and consequently becoming attached to outcomes that the kid didn't buy into - or, like most kids, changed their mind about after a while.
Over served kids burn out. They get too much or have an experience that is too intense, and they quit. Across the United States, the average dropout age is 14. By 14-years-old, 70% of kids in America are dropping out of youth sports. Some of this can be attributed to the pay-to-play issue we already talked about, but many in this category are burned out.
I myself did well in High School swimming, but we worked out twice per day during the season, and often on Saturdays. Our team trained like a college team and it was too much. Despite an offer from several colleges to come swim for them, I was burned out. I stayed away from swimming for years and didn't get back in the water again seriously until my time in the Navy. Burnout is a real thing.
Problem #3 - Under Served Kids
The most obvious population of kids we think about as being underserved are the ones who come from families who can't afford the high cost of playing team sports. Maybe mom and dad don't have time to drive their young player around. Maybe they don't have the money. In any case, there is a clear resource line that a large number of talented and otherwise active kids don't cross.
Maybe not so obvious, however are kids of average or below average ability. This probably makes up the majority of our population, though if we're only looking on fancy fields, we're only seeing kids that come from families who have the money to afford their sport, or we're seeing kids who have extra-ordinary abilities. Just because a kid doesn't have extreme talent in a given sport, it doesn't mean they aren't going to become the next CEO of the biggest software company in the world or the next President of the United States. Doesn't it do us all good if every kid gets a chance to learn how to win, how to lose, and how to be a good team mate? Of course it does!
And what about those extreme talents? I mean, really extreme talents that get noticed and offered scholarship. This is rare to have this level of talent and it's even more rare to have that level of talent and get noticed. I've seen many talented kids who can't play in situations where they might be noticed. It's sad to see talented and hungry kids looking through the fences at kids playing their favorite game when the only reason they can't play is they can't afford the price of admission.
Other types of kids who are underserved include kids with disabilities, overweight or obese kids, and late bloomers. There is such as thing as the relative age effect. Look it up! I was first introduced to the idea when I was having lunch with a Club President from a nearby Club. He told me that their Club was cutting kids who were born after April on their "best" teams. They were trying to stack the deck with players who were a few months older than their peers because they would be a little bigger, a little faster, and win more games. Clearly, I thought, this guy had his priorities out of whack. I was shocked he told me that and didn't really understand what he was telling me until a mentor of mine explained it. Pathetic!
All of the kids I just mentioned are not on the bus or the plane with kids who are doing the travel sports thing. And according to the statistics, they represent a huge population of kids in our communities.
Problem #4 - Perception and Culture
Even though Michael Jordon, arguably one of the best professional basketball players of this century was quoted as saying "I have failed over and over and over again in life, and that is why I succeed." We seem to have the notion that seeing our kids fail at something is a problem or that it reflects poorly on us as parents. If kids are not failing, they're not trying hard enough. They need an environment where failure is not only okay, but it is encouraged.
Youth sports is meant to provide a safe environment from bullying, from sexual predation, from physical harm, and from emotion or mental harm. With big momma or big grizzly dad yelling "Next time, knock him out!!" at the top of his or her lungs, or when some parent is yelling at the officials we ask our kids to respect because we think they made a mistake, it's not safe anymore. Kids become emotionally guarded. They get dramatic and throw themselves on the ground after a missed shot. Often, this is a preemptive (and self preserving) show to the sidelines that they hate themselves even more than the screaming parents do for having made a mistake. As my English friends would say: "RUBISH!!" Back off and let kids fail. They're learning. They're doing what they're supposed to do and we should be grateful that they're even out there trying! Tell them that, the next time your kid fails. Tell them how proud you are that they tried as hard as they did. If you're not actually proud, then fake it! Kids need a space where it's okay to fail.
So often, parents turn a youth match into more than it is meant to be. Kids need competition, particularly after around the age of 13, to continue their development. Kids pushing against one another is a healthy dynamic when it's frame in the context of a game or a fair contest. Pushing builds muscles physically, mentally, and emotionally. Make the contest about getting stronger - win or lose, it does not matter. Kids, particularly at the younger ages, are not going to get anything more from a win experience than they will from a loss. In fact, if they learn to process loss in a healthy way, they can gain even more than they would from a win. These dynamics matter more than the score. The score is just a number.
"It's just rec..." I can't tell you how many times I've heard these three words in a sentence and it grinds my gears every. single. time. What it says to me is that I'm listening to an elitist who doesn't understand the big picture, but has come to believe that they are somehow better than everyone else around them. It's as if they believe that "rec" kids are those who weren't good enough to make the cut. That rec coaches are unskilled or unprofessional. That there is a hierarchy of best-ness - which <insert your favorite latest premiere travel league here> and everyone else falling away in a pyramid of decreasing talent and worth.
The reality is, recreation kids are getting the same life lessons at a fraction of the price. In some context, we call people who do this intelligent. Often, recreation kids are cross training other sports as I did and they're increasing their overall athletic IQ - unlike those kids who deeply specialize in one sport at the expense of other sports and interests. Recreation kids I've coached over the years are brilliant debate team mates, singers, dancers, and future engineers and business owners. I've coached loads of honor roll kids who miss games sometimes because they're in Annapolis Maryland making bills, debating bills, and passing laws in youth government forums.
Coaches in the recreation leagues don't get a fraction of the credit they deserve. Consider this: a travel coach gets to pick and chose who gets on the team. A travel coach has one or two age bands to work with. A recreation coach has to deal with a much wider band of age groups, a wider band of motivations for playing the game, a wider sports vocabulary (as many kids come from other sports), and usually has a lot less to work with in terms of trainers, equipment, and even fields. If you really think about that for a minute, add the fact that many do this without pay, and you'll likely agree that these people are heroes! Not only are they selflessly giving to their community in terms of time and energy, but they are representing the best of us in terms of volunteerism and citizenship. Is that not the example we want our kids to follow in life?
Youth sports is dying in the US. The business of youth sports is growing, for sure, but we're losing something more important than the $16+ Billion dollars that are being spent on fancy shoes, fancy uniforms, and fancy fields. We're losing both a huge population of kids who don't fit the mold. We're losing kids we give too much to. And we're losing a lot of the really important character building stuff that youth sports has so brilliantly delivered to generations before the word "Elite" ever made it into our May through June vocabulary.
We are overspecializing too soon, distracting from the mission of developing young people in favor of developing a meaningless position on a youth standings chart, and creating in some cases, a group of kids who will grow into adults thinking the only way to be loved in life is to win. Try finding a parking space or changing lanes against one of those kids turned adult.
- Anderson, Jenny, and Jenny Anderson. “Team Sports Are Dying in the Very Country That Is Obsessed with Them.” Quartz, Quartz, 21 Dec. 2015, qz.com/576537/team-sports-are-dying-in-the-very-country-that-is-obsessed-with-them/.
- Neil_Paine. “Fewer Kids Are Playing Football, But Mark Cuban Might Be Wrong About Why.” FiveThirtyEight, FiveThirtyEight, 25 Mar. 2014, fivethirtyeight.com/features/fewer-kids-are-playing-football-but-mark-cuban-might-be-wrong-about-why/.
- Dorfman, Steve, and Steve Dorfman. “Youth Sports: Kids, Parents Paying a High Price to Play.” The Palm Beach Post, The Palm Beach Post, 24 May 2019, www.palmbeachpost.com/news/20190524/youth-sports-kids-parents-paying-high-price-to-play.
- Thompson, Derek. “American Meritocracy Is Killing Youth Sports.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 7 Nov. 2018, www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/11/income-inequality-explains-decline-youth-sports/574975/.
- Christensen, Joe. “Year-Round Sports Push Kids to Limit.” Star Tribune, Star Tribune, 19 Oct. 2017, www.startribune.com/no-off-season-for-prep-athletes-high-school-sports-minnesota-hockey-volleyball-softball/450292853/?refresh=true.
- Casey Chalk • September 5, 2018. “How the Elite Took Over Youth Sports, Too.” The American Conservative, www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/how-the-elite-took-over-youth-sports-too/.
- Flanagan, Linda. “What's Lost When Only Rich Kids Play Sports.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 28 Sept. 2017, www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/09/whats-lost-when-only-rich-kids-play-sports/541317/.
- “7 Charts That Show the State of Youth Sports in the US and Why It Matters.” The Aspen Institute, 21 Oct. 2016, www.aspeninstitute.org/blog-posts/7-charts-that-show-the-state-of-youth-sports-in-the-us-and-why-it-matters/.
- Corbin, Cristina. “The Human Cost of Raising Youth Sports to a '$17 Billion' Industry.” Fox News, FOX News Network, www.foxnews.com/sports/youth-sports-17-billion-industry-human-cost.
- “Relative Age Effect.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 20 June 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relative_age_effect.