Who is to Blame for the Decline in Youth Sports (Part 3)

By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck

(If you missed parts one and two in this series you may wish to read these first)

So, the parent who fears their child is being left behind, isn’t being taught the proper fundamentals by the rec coach, isn’t going to make the high school team and isn’t going to have a chance at a scholarship goes “all-in” and pushes them into a competitive club. And mostly for financial reasons, that club wants to play year-round, meaning there is not time for other sports. The parent believes that for their son or daughter to keep up, they must accept this paradigm which means that they are choosing for their child, sometimes as early as first grade, what single sport they are going to play the rest of their lives. Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said he had spoken with the NBA, NFL and NHL commissioners and they agreed, “the best athlete is a kid who played multiple sports.” But in the new youth sports reality, which places an earlier emphasis on winning and elite skill development, this multi-sport athlete is becoming rare. And who do you think is more likely to get burned-out? Kids who get to recharge their baseball batteries while they play soccer and then basketball, or someone locked into a single sport year-round who fears they can’t step off the treadmill for a moment because if they do everyone else will pass them up?

Specialization has also led to in increase in overuse injuries. According to studies, athletes ages 7-18 who specialize in one sport are 1.5 times as likely to receive an overuse injury. Many youngsters either can’t, or choose not to, come back from these injuries, making them another sad statistic.

All of which creates a ton of pressure for the children. They figure out at an early age that this is terribly important business. Their parents are uptight about their progress. The coaches are deadly serious. The time investment is overwhelming. And they get the message, sometimes stated overtly but always implied, “If you don’t play well you won’t make the high school team.” Or, “We’re not going to be able to pay for you to go to college unless you get a scholarship”. Now go out there and have fun, kid!

And now, more than ever, sports have intense competition for kids’ affection. The days of, “Mom, I’m bored. There’s nothing to do,” answered by, “Then go outside and play!” are sadly in the past. Kids with smart phones, tablets and video games are never bored anymore, which is how the makers of those devices, apps and games intend it to be. I am convinced screen addiction is the number one problem of our children’s generation, and not only because of the impact it has on sports. But when an adolescent can choose between participating in a high-stakes event where one misstep might lead to a potential tongue-lashing from a coach, demotion, parental disappointment and a diminished future, or a trip to a fun fantasy world where the child is completely in control and safe, is it any wonder many pick the latter?

So is the solution limiting screen time for our children? That is absolutely a good idea in general, but it probably won’t have much impact on sports participation. Taking away something enjoyable so that an unpleasant activity is the only option is better than just giving in and allowing kids to live virtually all day. But we won’t be able to force them forever to do something they don’t enjoy. I’d rather see us fix sports so that our children would prefer to be on a team than alone online.

It is time we realize that the participation decline in youth sports is not a temporary fluctuation but, rather, a trend that shows no signs of reversing. We can effect change but it is going to take a multi-pronged approach. Programs such as the Urban Youth Academy created by Major League Baseball aimed at reviving the sport in the inner city provide opportunities for economically disadvantaged youth to compete with players who have access to the best equipment, private lessons and facilities. Our partners at PHITAmerica.org are promoting legislation to encourage activity in adolescents. And since the growth of travel sports shows no signs of leveling off, it is up to our recreational programs to step up and offer a more competitive product. It also might entail some creative marketing. If all the kids at school are bragging about winning their rec championship, if the local papers are congratulating the town champions and publishing their photo, in short if it becomes “cool” to play rec sports, more kids will want to spend at least some of their time there. All organizations, travel or rec, must put forth better coaching through education and observation. And this doesn’t necessarily mean improvement in terms of technical education. It means coaches who want to be there, who enjoy the experience and can relate to kids. Every player who quits because he didn’t have fun is another downward tick on the graph.

And finally, parents need to push their egos, fears and dreams aside. Your child is not playing so that you can brag about his or her accomplishments to your friends. Your child is not playing so you can say that they made the all-star or high school team. Your child is not playing so that you have one less college tuition to pay for. Your child should be out there because they love it. And if you don’t keep that in mind, the day may come soon when your child is not playing.

Brian Gotta is a former youth baseball coach and volunteer Little League board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels and a baseball coaching book which can be found at www.booksbygotta.com. He can be reached at brian@coachdeck.com

What are you going to do this weekend?

Got an all-star tournament to attend? Going golfing on a warm summer day? Maybe a swim at the beach? Tennis anyone? Whatever you do, around the chores and sleeping in, make sure to get out and get some sports and exercise in. When Monday rolls around again you’ll be glad you did. Enjoy your weekend!

Time for a Vacation?

I was emailing a friend and business associate and we were getting caught up on one another’s families. He said, “We have a place up at the lake that we have been to the past 3/4 weekends. Our need to take advantage of the warm weather and desire for time at the lake took precedence over baseball, so unfortunately there are no baseball stars in this house.” It got me thinking about the choices my family has made through the years because of sports, and wondering if we’d gotten it right.

I have four kids who all play sports, ages 22, 21, 18 and 16. So obviously, having that many children means that more time and money is being spent than a family with one or two kids. But we have lots of friends who take elaborate vacations – Hawaii, Europe, the Caribbean. Our last family vacation? One fluke weekend when no one had sports conflicts we went camping in the local mountains an hour away. And that was three years ago.

Last summer, I went by myself to see my son play baseball in Canada for three days. My wife went on two soccer trips with my daughter. This year the two of them have already flown for tournaments to New Jersey for a week, Seattle for a week, and now Virginia for the national championships, another week. We’re also taking her on college visits across the country. Not only do those airfares, hotels and rental cars put a dent in a vacation budget, they mean there’s no time left over to do anything else. Now I have another son playing his summer baseball in Canada and the oldest playing his first year of pro baseball in Florida. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get to see either one of them. And if I do go alone, that’s not a family vacation.

It wasn’t much better years ago. There was always a sports conflict and the incredible cost of travel teams impeding our options. There were constant out-of-town soccer tournaments, baseball showcase tournaments, (which were, by the way, a waste of time and money – for us anyway) and rigorous game and practice schedules that could not be disrupted. So no, my kids have never been to Hawaii, never been to Europe or the Caribbean. If you ask them their favorite vacation we ever took they’d probably point to the couple of times we’ve gone back to the Midwest and stayed with their aunt or their grandfather and got to hang out with their cousins who they rarely see. And even the last time we did that we worked in a couple of college visits for baseball.

When I was a boy, growing up in Indiana, we couldn’t afford to do anything elaborate on my father’s junior high school principal salary. But each summer we drove to Florida and stayed two weeks with my aunt and uncle who lived on a lake. Those memories are some of my fondest and I’m sure my siblings would agree. But there was no all-consuming summer ball back then. You played a light  schedule and even if you did miss a few games for vacation it was no big deal. Not like today.

If you asked my kids if they wished we’d done more family activities, specifically vacations, they’d unanimously say no. They’re too ingrained in sports. But they also don’t know what they missed and, unfortunately, neither do their mom or I. We don’t know if it would have been healthier, better for our family and ourselves if we’d cut back somehow on the sports and mandated a nice family vacation each year without any interruptions. And now we never will.

Has there been a payoff? In terms of money I guess you could say yes, there have been college scholarships. But I can say honestly that never played into our decisions. When the kids were younger I truly never dreamed that something like that might happen. We were doing it because it was what the kids wanted.

There is no easy answer. Each family has to make its own decision and hope for the best. I can’t say I have any regrets because I think our children have turned out pretty well and we have lots of great sports memories. But I do have twinges of sadness thinking about how fun it would have been to have spent more family time together. I guess everyone wants it all – wishes they could have the best of both worlds. And if there is a way you can manage to do both, I highly recommend it.

Brian Gotta is President of CoachDeck LLC (http://www.coachdeck.com). He can be reached at brian@coachdeck.com.