Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

A Youth Sports Blog

Thirteen (part four)

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boy_football-thumb-200x2991Is anyone else gonna play? Anyone? Hello?

Turns out Bob Shaw of the St. Paul Pioneer Press has offered solutions on what to do about falling participation in Minnesota high school sports, a trend that given the causes of the problem would seem to be in place just about everywhere. The suggested list, based on his interviews:

  • Recognize that parental involvement is often overdone.
  • Ditch the single-minded emphasis on winning, especially at younger levels.
  • Reduce the number of games and tournaments.
  • Consider an expanded role for clubs and private associations.
  • Offer sports that children want to play.
  • Consider alternatives to varsity sports, such as parks and recreation sports, intramurals and alternative leagues.

    Items No. 1 and 2 are long-recognized problems and pretty much impossible to change. As long as there are organized sports, parents are going to have to be involved in some level. The halcyon days of we-just-grabbed-a-bat-and-went-to-the-park are long over, a combination of fear of kidnapping, fear of lawsuits, fear of your kid getting run over by a car, fear of a child predator looming about, as well as a more practical matter: an aging nation with families have fewer kids, more single-parent families and more neighborhoods with houses spread out so getting the critical, after-school mass of kids necessary for a pickup game is often impossible.

    And when parents get involved, there’s a conundrum: we’re told to be involved with our children and their activities, but then we’re also told our involvement is a problem. (I hear it from my sister-in-law, a teacher, when she talks about us being one of “those parents” when we mention we emailed a question to one of our kids’ teachers.) As coaches and fans, you’re going to have parents who, while they might have the best of intentions, will overemphasize the competitive aspects of sports over development.

    You can, and should, have all the campaigns aimed at parents about best behavior, but some bad behavior is going to happen. It happened when I was a kid in organized sports in the 1970s and 1980s, it happens now, and it will happen in the future. If it seems like it’s happening more now, it’s because when I was a kid, parents weren’t expected to be so involved. So instead of intensity, the problem was apathy (a problem, the Pioneer Press story points out, that can be just as big a factor in lack of children’s athletic participation).

    No. 3, reducing the number of games and tournaments, is also never going to happen. There’s too much money involved. I’ll get into this in more detail in a later post, but a lot of small- and mid-sized cities and suburbs are staking an economic claim to attracting youth sports tournaments, competition that is only more intense as the economy worsens. For example, the Columbus, Ind., Convention and Visitors Bureau in 2008 recorded a $16 million local economic impact from youth sports tournaments. Not as much as generated by, say, Cummins, but not bad for a city of 40,000. As long as people can make money from parents forking over big bucks for their kids’ athletic activities, there are going to be plenty of games and tournaments. In a way, that’s why No. 4 — an expanded role for clubs and private associations — is already happening.

    No. 5 is an interesting point — offer sports children want to play. That seems self-evident, but for schools adding or subtracting sports on the varsity level is an arduous task. The Pioneer Press story talks about how a school heavily populated by Hmong immigrants increased its participation by offering more racquet sports, which fit more nicely with their culture. However, such a change is not always welcomed by those who believe immigrants should adapt to “our” ways, not the other way around.

    If nothing else, a school can at least offer opportunities at the intramural level to reflect the population’s changing interests and get parents and families more engaged with their schools. It doesn’t have to be either-or. In a recent couple of trips to play basketball at the Monon Center, a facility in my hometown of Carmel, Ind., I saw a reflection of how its fast-growing Chinese population is intergrating into local sports, and how it will change them.

    One night, a group of Chinese teenagers were in a spirited game of basketball — obviously, fitting pretty well into Indiana. Another day, a group of Chinese adults was playing volleyball (no big change there) while their kids were on the sidelines knocking a birdie back and forth in a casual display of badminton (big change there). Carmel is a fairly wealthy suburban school district, so I imagine it can, and will, add badminton at least to intramural status at some point to reflect demand.

    And, No. 6, consider alternatives to varsity sports — as I’ve mentioned several times, even in this post, schools should put a greater emphasis on intramurals, and perhaps even offer after-school clinics for certain sports for kids who aren’t athletes. Obviously, gym and field space plays into the decision to give interscholastic sports the first nod, but there’s no reason a school can’t use elementary gyms or other local facilities for the same purpose.

    Of course, in a lot of areas these alternatives and programs exist and aren’t used. Often, kids at older ages have decided they just aren’t into a sport and don’t want to play it. That’s not an all-bad thing. Part of growing up is trying something out, and ditching it if you don’t like it. Yes, the crazy sports-industrial complex weeds out a lot of kids who would like to play, or teaches kids that they don’t want to. But many, many kids quit because they thought they were interested, tried it out, and weren’t.

    To increase participation, I think the key is to get those kids who aren’t varsity level but are interested in playing and give them the opportunity. It’s also about teaching kids and parents that sports are a lifelong activity that’s great if you’re a star on the varsity or club team, but is also great if you like knocking around a gym for a couple of hours. The goal isn’t necessarily to increase participation to what it was 25 years ago. The goal should be to give kids who want to play the opportunity to play. If you sell a viable alternative to the gotta-get-on-the-club-team track, problems Nos. 1 through 5 will take care of themselves.

    Colorado football coach Dan Hawkins agrees.

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    1. […] written about it here before (and before that), and I’ll write about it again, because cities keep doing it:  using youth sports as an […]


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