Glory Days: Discussing Youth Sports

One of my all-time favorite movies is The Sandlot. A classic tale of neighborhood kids, summer shenanigans, and life lessons learned from baseball. While the era of childhood has changed in many ways since the days of Benny, Smalls, Squints and Yeah Yeah, kids are still…well, kids.

Looking back on my own childhood, when it comes to sports, those are often viewed as the Glory Days (insert Bruce Springsteen background music here). My parents once added up the number of gymnasiums in which I played basketball tournaments from the ages of 10-18 and the number was well over 250. I will add that most of those did not have A/C, so in the humid summers of the mid-west I equate that as my version of walking to school in the snow uphill both ways.

Boy, have youth sports changed. The National Association of Sports Commissions now consists of more than 350 rights holder members, or members who put on events. Now a big portion are organizations such as national governing bodies (NGB) of Olympic sports, or NCAA, NJCAA, NAIA, etc., but a significant number are youth sport organizers. As much as we’d love to think it’s always “about the kids”, that is not always the case. Youth sports is a highly commercialized (thus monetary-driven) industry these days. Look no further than the implications on college basketball right now.

There is additional irony to note. Did you know according to the Sports Fitness Industry Association study by the Physical Activity Council, core participation among ages 6-17 have gone down over the last 5 years in all sports except hockey, fast-pitch softball and lacrosse? The same study noted that among the same age, the average number of sports in which kids participate has gone from 2.19 in 2011 to 1.89 in 2015. At the same time, overall team sport participation has held steady. In other words, although 2.19 to 1.89 sports does not sound like much, it indicates kids are specializing in one sport much more frequently than in the past.

Credit: State of Obesity

It’s also interesting to look at peak ages of sport participation. Basketball is 13, soccer is 10, baseball is 8, volleyball is 14, football (tackle) is 15. After these numbers, participation tapers downward.

Oh, and by the way, one out of every 6 children is now classified as obese. Check out this interactive trend chart by state.

These stats surely paint a gloomy picture.

So how is it, in the smartest, most technologically-advanced era, with data coming out of our ears, that this is so?

Well, there are a number of factors at play, and I’ll briefly touch on just a few. First, sport vs. athletics. Sport involves competition. Athletics involves physical activity and games of any kind. We’ve moved away from athletics (i.e. playing for fun) to sport (i.e. playing for competition). Studies have shown that when left to their own devise, kids will actually organize, play, and self-govern their activities. Not to mention the creative games they develop. Stack that experience up against 2-hour fully structured practice at the ripe age of 4 (okay, maybe I’m exaggerating…but probably not). Heck, they might even have fun, develop social skills and who knows, maybe enjoy the physical activity that keeps them from getting obese.

Instead, we see burnout, overuse injuries, specialization, access barriers for non-elite players, decreasing recreation opportunities, and rising participatory costs. Sounds like we’ve really held true to the essence, huh?

Credit: Aspen Institute Project Play

I had a wonderful conversation with a local youth sport organizer this week in which I heard a refreshing take on mission and objective. Yes, elite teams were a part of the conversation, but what struck me the most was his focus on access, play, and under-served populations. We at the GGJSC, will do everything in our power to help.

Perhaps my educational background has jaded me, but I’m a year away from completing my doctorate in sport management and my almost 6 year old son does not know the difference between baseball and football. And that is fine by me. But the conversation I had this week did give me hope. Please note, this is not at all intended to be a drag on youth sports, these are just facts and the reality of the situation we face as a country.

Credit: Hooked on Paddleboarding

Do you know the fastest growing sport among ages 6-17? It’s stand-up paddleboarding. And my guess is that it’s because kids can get out on the water, have fun, and they can’t hear their coaches or parents screaming from the shore! 🙂

Shouldn’t every kid deserve the chance to play, learn valuable life lessons, and in 20 years reflect back on their glory days just like Smalls?

As the great Michael Jordan once said “Just play. Have fun. Enjoy the game.” This has been Stoll on Sports. Additional resources below.

Resources about Youth Sports:


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