Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

A Youth Sports Blog

Posts Tagged ‘intramural sports

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.

  • Thirteen (parts two and three)

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    Bob Shaw of the St. Paul Pioneer Press continues his series on why organized sports participation is falling off in Minnesota. In parts two and three, the reasons he gives are shocking only to those who have not intersected in the youth sports world in the last decade or so. Those reasons are: more intense training at early ages, thus discouraging latecomers, and an ever-higher cost in dollars and dedication to participate, thus discouraging anyone without money and parental free time.

    I’m hoping that Shaw has another part looking at ideas on what we’re supposed to do about this problem — or even if it is one. It’s unfortunate that a kid who decides at 11 he or she might be interested in basketball might not have a shot at getting on the school team. But if a parent wants to pay extra money for training and coaching earlier in life, and the kid seems to enjoy it, is that automatically a bad thing?

    After all, we wouldn’t think twice about a parent who spent buckets of money and time on piano lessons, art instruction or, god forbid, a more academic pursuit. And it’s not just families with money who benefit — if you’re a sports prodigy, you’ll have people lining up to help you, no matter what your income bracket. They just won’t be from your school.

    I think why this inequality grates at people regarding sports over anything else is because of some enduring myths we have about it. The Olympic movement and the NCAA are living, breathing entities of the ideal (propagated by elites like modern Olympics founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin and the Ivy League schools that started intercollegiate athletics) that sports was but a side venture, to be done for personal achievement and greater glory, not for money. And there’s the myth of sports as a social and economic equalizer, a place where family background and wealth do not matter.

    But sports has become as professionalized at the lowest levels as other extracurricular pursuits, and family background and wealth DO matter. Well, they matter in the sense that when all other things are equal — size, talent, athletic ability — they will win out. If you can play like LeBron, you’re getting ahead no matter what. Thousands of dollars spent on coaching and 85 tournaments a year can’t overcome an inability to grow to be 6-foot-8 and leap out of a gym.

    So you’re not going to be able to solve this problem of inequality by demanding that schools fund sports more, or that parents stop sending their kids to high-level coaches. The only way I can see to solve this problem is to redefine what school sports is for, or rather use the definition already in place — student-athlete.

    Let the club sports have the elite if they want them. If schools want to increase participation, they should redirect their spending to intramural sports or other activities that encourage participation over outside competition. (Not that intramurals aren’t competitive. Especially when some boys’ girlfriends show up to watch.)

    I’m not saying that school sports should be cut completely. But a de-emphasis might be in order if the idea is that you’re getting the best students who want to play, not the kids (or their parents) who feel like they’re on the road to college and professional glory. If an individual school or district doesn’t have the kids to support a program, or even intramurals, then find a way to combine it with other schools or districts if possible. The main message to get to kids is that we want you to play, no matter how much you suck. (I’m just talking like a teenager thinks.)

    As a parent, I love intramurals. My kids’ old Catholic school had team sports, but the public school didn’t. But as far as I’m concerned, the intramurals are enough competition and fun at that level, and a lot of kids to get to play sports they might not otherwise in a team sports structure. The pressure is off. In my area, we’re fortunate to have a lot of opportunities through park districts or private programs for team sports, and that’s enough.

    After all, the kids who are playing these sports more than likely are not going to make a career out of athletics. Hopefully, they’ll find a sports they’ll enjoy and continue to play just for the hell of it. If you want to know why I feel this way, just look at the name of this site.


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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.