Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

A Youth Sports Blog

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Thirteen

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You hear some version of this stat so often, you figure eventually it’s going to be a Paul Hardcastle song. Somewhere around three-quarters of kids participating in organized sport quit by the time they’re thirteen. Thirteen. Thirteen. Th-th-th-th-th-th-thirteen.

Usually this statistic is accompanied by a lot of hand-wringing. But I’ve never seen anyone worry about the percentage of kids who take up a musical instrument who never make it to high school band. Or the number of kids who start singing and never join a high school chorus. Or the number of kids who try out for a school play who don’t continue into high school theater.

I think the competitive aspect of sports is only reaching what it has been for a number of extracurricular activities for kids. No one ever talks about how someone should be allowed to join the school orchestra and play violin just for fun. You’re expected to get the goddamn notes right. There is nothing special about sports that gives children an inalienable right to be equal no matter what, especially as they get older.

However, what is different about sports is that as an activity, it is something that is possible to do for your own enjoyment and benefit without worrying about if your A’s are too sharp. The disturbing story about youth sports is not that the elite sports are getting more elite, but that fewer opportunities exist for kids to participate in a casual setting. Whether that’s because there’s no supply or no demand is up for debate.

so_you_want_to_quit_smA story published over the weekend by the St. Paul Pioneer Press has some interesting information on both sides of this — about the decline of organized school sports participation, and the decline of casual participation as well. The piece by reporter Bob Shaw says that according to Minnesota Department of Education information, high school sports participation is about half off the peak of 54 percent of students in 1981-82. The story doesn’t say it, but I would find it shocking if other states didn’t see similar declines.

Looking at the story and the always-entertaining comments by readers beneath it, the following reasons are thrown out for the decline. In no particular order:

– Fewer three-sport athletes (one student in three sports counts as three)

– Bigger, consolidated high schools (fewer slots available)

– Student burnout from playing every day since age 5

– Student burnout from trying to balance school, home, work and athletic responsibilites

– Video games

– Overprotective parents who either don’t let their kids run around and play on their own, or are stage moms and dads on travel teams

– The emergence of club teams as a bigger factor in college recruiting

– Working mothers (kids can’t participate in sports early in life if a chauffeur isn’t home)

– Illegal immigrants (Lou Dobbs is apparently a commenter)

– Greater diversity in schools (or, why don’t Muslims play hockey, dammit?)

– Title IX (i.e., girls killing boys sports, though the story notes in soccer and hockey, girls’ participation in Minnesota is up sharply)

– Sports being  just too damn serious

– Men controlling sports (thus turning it into a proxy for war, because if women controlled it, it would be all hearts and flowers and game-ending hugs)

– Kids not playing sports on their own, just for fun

15978253_7ce12a81ba_mThey’re coming to ruin our sports!

You might find the above reasons ridiculous, or spot-on, or both. No question, the elite levels of sports are getting more elite at earlier ages. I know it was difficult for my son to start at wrestling at age 9, when most of the kids he competed against had four years’ experience on him. He was done after a year. But it can be done. The wrestling coaches told me my son would probably get his butt kicked for two years, but he would catch up. It just so happened my son liked the wrestling practices, but not waiting around all day at some distant location to wrestle two matches. (I can’t say I blamed him.)

The more distressing information from the Pioneer Press story is that intramural participation rates have sagged so low — an indication that sports in an either-or in which you’re either an elite athlete, or not in the picture.

In the 1980s, about 74,000 children picked from a smorgasbord of 70 intramural sports. The range was impressive — everything from co-ed wrestling to roller-skating.

By 2007-08, intramural programs had evaporated — with only eight sports and 5 percent participation.

My oldest son, the aforementioned ex-wrestler, is playing as a sixth-grader in a seventh- and eighth-grade basketball rec league. It’s great he has an opportunity to play in a casual league just to have a little fun playing hoops. It’s competitive, but it’s hardly AAU ball. The league is a great opportunity, especially for kids who either didn’t make their school junior-high team, or didn’t want to bother with it.

On the other hand, the reason he is playing with older kids is because the league couldn’t get enough of them to sign up to make four full teams. Certainly the economy is cutting down on the number of families who are going to pay even relatively low rec-league fees. But you wonder if kids and their families are even interested in the few opportunities available to play casually. Or maybe they’ve been conditioned to think no such opportunities exist, or should.

Video games from the Pleistocene Era

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I was helping my parents do some work around their house, and I found this:

head2headbaseball1My old Coleco Head-to-Head Electronic Baseball. I believe I got it for Christmas in 1982. It was the first (or one of the first) electronic games where you could play someone other than the CPU. You had two pitches — fastball and curve. Curve was always a ball, but you didn’t know until the circular light representing the ball popped outside the plate at the last second.

I brought it home for my kids, who viewed it as an archeologist would Pompeii. My 9-year-old daughter actually played it for a little while, though. Yep — after 27 years (yikes!), it still fired up with a fresh pair of 9-volts.

Please feel free to share below any favorites you have from that era, and any experiences you had showing it to someone whose frame of reference is XBox Live.

A prof brings the crazy on youth sports

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The beauty of the Wall Street Journal editorial and commentary pages is that you know there’s going to be some sort of what-is-killing-America craziness: you just don’t know who is going to be today’s culprit.

Today’s culprit: soccer.

3014377716_193a4e7747OK, on the count of three, I want everyone to say, “Death to America!”

The writer is a Wabash College religion and philosophy professor named Stephen H. Webb, and the article is actually pulled from a partnership with the religious journal First Things. It is published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, which essentially is a vehicle to further the reach of neocon Catholic priest Richard Neuhaus (who died in January) and his like-thinkers. So it’s no wonder its content fits so snugly with the Journal’s editorial page.

webb-sThe defender of freedom (pictured at right — it’s nice to see he’s done well since playing Haverchuck on “Freaks and Geeks”) sees soccer as a threat (and he says he’s not kidding) for four reasons:

1. You can’t use your hands. “Indeed, soccer is a liberal’s dream of tragedy: It creates an egalitarian playing field by rigorously enforcing a uniform disability.” Wrongo, prof. The ultimate liberal’s dream of tragedy is swimming, where we get in touch with our pre-evolutionary fishy selves.

2. Sports should be about breaking kids down before you build them up. Webb uses baseball as an example, though he never gets around to how soccer builds you up before its breaks you down (wait — didn’t he in point No. 1 say soccer already broke you down by enforcing a uniform disability?). “When I was a kid, baseball was the most popular sport precisely because it was so demanding. Even its language was intimidating, with bases, bats, strikes and outs. … The boy chosen to be the pitcher was inevitably the first kid on the team to reach puberty, and he threw a hard ball right at you. Thus, you had to face the fear of disfigurement as well as the statistical probability of striking out.” Note to prospective students of Webb’s class: be prepared to dodge a high, hard crucifix to the chin.

3. Soccer is a European invasion of death and despair. “Americans would never invent a sport where the better you get the less you score. Even the way most games end, in sudden death, suggests something of an old-fashioned duel. How could anyone enjoy a game where so much energy results in so little advantage, and which typically ends with a penalty kick out, as if it is the audience that needs to be put out of its misery?” He’s way off here, mostly because, as the great Indiana band MX-80 notes in “Facts Facts,” lacrosse is the only truly American sport. So it’s closer to accurate just to stop at “Americans would never invent a sport.”

4. Finally, and this should be no surprise coming from someone teaching at an all-male college (the school newspaper is the Bachelor — it should have a rose across the nameplate), soccer is for girls. “Girls are too smart to waste an entire day playing baseball, and they do not have the bloodlust for football.” Wait, didn’t Webb say in point No. 2 that baseball is so great because it’s demanding? ” Soccer penalizes shoving and burns countless calories, and the margins of victory are almost always too narrow to afford any gloating. As a display of nearly death-defying stamina, soccer mimics the paradigmatic feminine experience of childbirth more than the masculine business of destroying your opponent with insurmountable power.” If Webb thinks soccer is the equivalent of childbirth, then he needs a little more education on the subject. First lesson: passing a soccer ball through his pecker.

Webb concludes his article by undermining everything he says above. Or maybe what he says above is reflects his own frustration that he and his family seem to enjoy hands-free terrorism.

Soccer is the perfect antidote to television and video games. It forces kids to run and run, and everyone can play their role, no matter how minor or irrelevant to the game. Soccer and television are the peanut butter and jelly of parenting.

I should know. I am an overworked teacher, with books to read and books to write, and before I put in a video for the kids to watch while I work in the evenings, they need to have spent some of their energy. Otherwise, they want to play with me! Last year all three of my kids were on three different soccer teams at the same time. My daughter is on a traveling team, and she is quite good. I had to sign a form that said, among other things, I would not do anything embarrassing to her or the team during the game. I told the coach I could not sign it. She was perplexed and worried. “Why not,” she asked? “Are you one of those parents who yells at their kids? “Not at all,” I replied, “I read books on the sidelines during the game, and this embarrasses my daughter to no end.” That is my one way of protesting the rise of this pitiful sport. Nonetheless, I must say that my kids and I come home from a soccer game a very happy family.

What the hell? Do you love soccer, or hate it? As Stephen Colbert says, pick a side, we’re at war! Then again, this is the sort of wishy-washy conclusion you might expect from a guy who co-founded the Christian Vegetarian Association yet was kicked out because he copped to eating meat.

Video games: good, and good for you

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So says the European Union, clearly trying to undermine rock-solid American values by encouraging couch-potatoness. From Reuters (British — hey, aren’t they supposed to be our allies?):

BRUSSELS — Videogames can be good for children, encouraging creativity and cooperation, a European Union report concluded Wednesday which ran counter to the violent reputation of some titles.

In conclusions that may either surprise or reassure parents of game addicts, the study by the European Parliament Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection found a number of benefits and no definitive link to violent behavior.

“Videogames are in most cases not dangerous and can even contribute to the development of important skills,” said Toine Manders, the Dutch liberal lawmaker who drafted the report.

“(They stimulate) learning of facts and skills such as strategic reflection, creativity, cooperation and a sense of innovation,” a news release on the report said.

I’m sorry, did someone say something? I can’t hear over the sounding of my 11-year-old blasting zombies in “Left 4 Dead.”

Seriously, video games can be a huge help when introducing children to the rules of a sport. When my aforementioned 11-year-old was starting soccer, he got a better understanding of what to do by playing EA Sports World Cup. When he started basketball, playing NBA Live helped him grasp the concepts of the game. (He also, as a 7-year-old, was asking who was traded for whom so he could update the rosters. It certainly helped him grasp the concept of being a GM.) And when he started with hockey, his understanding improved playing NHL Live.

And why is my 6-year-old totally into bowling, playing in a league every Saturday? Wii Bowling!

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The most important training tools for your budding young athlete.

You might think my 11-year-old is too young to be playing zombie-killer games such as “Left 4 Dead” and “Dead Rising.” But I have a cemetery at the end of my block, and I want to make sure my son is ready, just in case.

A book your child might actually read

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laststraw_400The new “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” book, “The Last Straw,” is out. If you don’t understand why I found it front and center as I walked into the Borders on State Street in Chicago this morning, then you probably don’t have a child about junior high age. For the uninitiated, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” tells the continuing story of Greg Heffley, a self-described “good at nothing” sixth-grader who has to fend off, well, all the things a sixth-grader has to fend off. The book is written like a journal, with lined paper and comic asides. The author, Jeff Kinney, wrote this first in blog form, in his spare time from creating sites such as the tween-and-teen online roleplaying game Poptropica. Unlike Greg Heffley, Jeff Kinney is good at something.

One of Greg’s nagging problems is his father, Frank, who is constantly pushing him to join sports, mostly swimming and, in this new book, soccer. It’s said 75 percent (or whatever number people pull out of their asses) of kids quit sports by age 13 is because it isn’t fun, mostly because of yelling coaches and overbearing parents. Looking at it from Greg’s point of view, they quit because they never felt like being out there in the first place.

I’m not trying to be deep. The books are funny. And it should not come as news to anyone that you cannot dissuade your child from playing video games, wearing his mother’s bathrobe or killing time with his dim-witted friend just by frog-marching him onto a field. Or frog-marching him into any other activity, for that matter.

UPDATE: Four hours after the original post, and two-and-a-half hours after I handed him the book, my 11-year-old finished it. He reports that Greg’s father, frustrated by his son’s lack of interest and ability in sports (like he did in T-ball, Greg spends his time as a soccer goalie picking at dandelions), decides he wants to send him to military school. Hilarity ensues.

Wii Fit is God

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wii-fit-20080402033454116_640w1

I’m not on the Nintendo payroll, and whatever deity you may or may not worship knows that the company isn’t throwing me any cabbage so I can hype its products on a site that so far has gotten seven unique visitors. (But, Nintendo, I’m a hopeless whore, so feel free to contact me with any offer!)

Still, I can’t stop from raving about Wii Fit, to the point where people on my train wish I would do something less annoying, like sniffle loudly as I have a long conversation on my cellphone regarding butt warts.

It’s a beautifully simple product. You use a remote and a balance board (which looks like a cheap bathroom scale) to perform numerous exercises and games (yes, games) to improve your fitness. There’s yoga, strength training, aerobic training and balance games. Wii Fit can put you through a daily body test to measure your weight and balance, and charts it all. You can log in other physical activity so the trainer (male version, pictured above) doesn’t make passive-aggressive comments about where you’ve been.

The pluses are many. First, it’s convenient. You don’t have to drive to a gym, or worry about whether it’s too cold and icy to run. Second, it’s educational. You’re instructed in how to do exercises the correct way, including images that pop up to show how well you’re balancing (that Tylenol with the red dot pictured above), thus showing you whether you’re getting the benefit of your exercise. Third, it’s competitive. You’re scored on how well you do each exercise. The better you score, the quicker you unlock more reps and more exercises. Also, you can compare yourself to other family members, friends or hobos who come through and use the system as well.

Now what does this have to do with youth sports? Why, I’m glad I asked.

If you have a child who is not athletically inclined or tends to be inactive, this is an easy, painless way to get him or her to exercise. After all, it IS a video game. With my own kids, even if I’m being hardass dad and putting a limit on killing zombies or chasing after the Lego Ark of the Covenant, I’ll tell them they still can play Wii Fit.

dead-rising
Invigorating, but technically not exercise.

If you have a child who is involved with sports, at any level, Wii Fit lets you hire a personal trainer for your kids without spending a bunch of money (about $400 total for the system and Wii Fit, assuming you can find either) or embarrassing yourself by admitting to people you hired a personal trainer for your 3-year-old. Yes, a 3-year-old can figure out Wii Fit; at least mine has.

I’ve had Wii Fit only since November, but I’ve noticed my 11-year-old son has more energy and quickness on the basketball court thanks to his frequent workouts, and that my 6-year-old is more balanced and stronger when he bowls. (Hey, bowling is a sport!) It will interesting to see how it affects my 9-year-old daughter when softball starts, but in the short term it’s sparked an interest in yoga, so much so that she’s now signed up for classes at a real yoga studio. She’s also started talking about Buddhism, thus indeed turning Wii Fit into a religious experience.

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