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)

Specialization
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.

Pressure
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!

Electronics
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.

Conclusion
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

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True meaning of “sport” and gaming addiction

When children believe that playing video games is the same as playing a sport, we can all agree we have a problem. Yet that is where we are seemingly headed as more and more youngster enter online competitions referred to as “sporting events,” and as many as 25% of children under 13 surveyed say they believe video games to be a form of physical activity. Our partner, PHIT America.org aims to do something to combat this growing trend. Here is how.

What Do You Want From Your Child’s Sports Experience?

If you have children playing sports, or will someday, you may never have asked yourself what you hope they gain from the experience. In the beginning, we usually put little boys and girls into sports simply to see if they like it and to give them an outlet for their energy. But as they get older, Little League, middle school, high school and beyond, it might be a worthwhile question to ask: What do I hope they get out of playing?

There may be, and probably are many answers. One hopes that at the top, or near the top of the list is that they enjoy themselves. We wish for them to look back someday with fond memories – glad they did it. But too often we lose sight of this primary goal. We put so much pressure on our kids, to win – to be the best – to drive themselves, that we unintentionally risk ruining the best part of sports…the pure joy.

At the same time, I’ve written often before about the balance. Sure, some kids play sports solely to have fun and nothing more. And that’s great. However, others, even without parental influence, want more. They want to compete. To improve. To win. And that’s great too. Some of the most valuable life lessons about success and what it takes to attain it can be learned on the field, (or the court – the ice – pick your game).

What else might our kids get from sports? Some of us may wish for our children to learn habits of fitness and good health. Goodness knows that with the ubiquitous electronic distractions facing our kids everywhere, no one could argue the benefit of getting them outside unplugged, and running around in fresh air.

The social aspect of playing on a team can’t be overlooked. All of my children have lifelong friends they’ve made from their teams. And, on the positive side of technology, even after they have moved on from high school, summer or college teams they’ll be able to stay in touch through social media much better than I was able at their age.

I think back to what I hoped sports would do for my kids in their early teens. My only desire was that they’d have a positive structure to their days. I saw too many boys and girls who got to high school, got in with the wrong crowd, had no direction and ended up making big mistakes and potentially screwing up their lives or getting hurt. There is no doubt in my mind that when kids are on a team where accountability and performance are expected, where missteps would be public and have team-related consequences, they are far less likely to stray. Go to school, go to practice, come home. Not too much time to get in trouble with that schedule.

So it is important when we look at the question, “What do I hope they get out of playing,” that we remember we’re asking what we hope they get, not what we get. It is also a good idea to keep in mind that success is a journey, not a destination. Even if our children don’t turn out to be superstars, don’t get scholarships or play in the pros, their sports careers can and should be looked at as successes. If they were positive contributors to a team, became more healthy, figured out the correlation between work and achievement and kept their noses clean, if they made friends and had fun, they are winners.

Sports teach life lessons I doubt can be learned anywhere else. My kids have all had incredible moments of exhilarating joy in their athletic accomplishments. They have also experienced devastating failures that no parent would wish on any child. But you know what? They’re still here. And they’re still playing. And I have to believe that later on, when they eventually hang up the cleats, the way they survived the worst times on the field might end up being the most valuable lessons of all.

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