Why parents are the reason youth sports participation is trending downward

A recent survey conducted by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association reported the number of kids ages 6 to 17 that played youth team sports in 2014 amounted to roughly 26 million, down 4 percent from 2009.

The survey, which Michael S. Rosenwald of The Washington Post cited in an early October column, also revealed the total sports played during that five-year span had dropped by about 10 percent.

Simply put, fewer children are playing youth sports today than in years past. And one reason, according to Rosenwald, is that club and travel sports have seemingly taken a front seat to recreational play as a result of parents placing a greater emphasis on competitive play. He thinks youth sports have become “an investment” to them and says they “spend small fortunes on private coaching, expensive equipment, swag and travel to tournaments.”

Some of the drop-off is attributable to the recession, particularly in low-income urban areas. But experts fear larger socioeconomic forces are in play, especially in the suburbs, where the shift to elite competition over the past two decades has taken a growing toll: Children are playing fewer sports, and the less talented are left behind in recreational leagues with poor coaching, uneven play and the message that they aren’t good enough. Seventy percent of kids quit sports by age 13.
“The system is now designed to meet the needs of the most talented kids,” said Mark Hyman, a professor of sports management at George Washington University and the author of several books on youth sports. “We no longer value participation. We value excellence.”

Rosenwald’s not the only one who thinks parents are going too far, either. Doug Most of The Boston Globe added more fuel to the fire a few weeks ago, and Ken Reed of The Huffington Post wrote last week about how kids “don’t like the pressure adults (parents, coaches) put on them” in what he calls a “ultra competitive youth sports scene.

Below is an excerpt from Most’s October 22 piece.

A new survey from the Boston-based private coaching start-up CoachUp found that 75 percent of youth sports coaches say “most parents place too much emphasis on their child winning games, highlighting the ‘win at all costs’ culture among many sports parents.”

It gets worse. The survey also found that 95 percent of coaches have seen a parent “yell at a referee during a game,” which CoachUp said sends a sportsmanship message to children that lasts far beyond the final whistle.

And one other concern the survey found: sports burnout, the result of parents signing their elementary-aged kids up for too many sports simultaneously, out of a fear they will fall behind. The CoachUp survey included responses from 261 youth sports coaches around the U.S. from June 6 to 25.

Overly-aggressive parents who berate referees and push their kids too hard may seem like cliche or redundant topics. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take notice and work to prevent parents from crossing the line.

Because things can turn dark quickly, as Juliet Macur of The New York Times illustrated in a recent article detailing the gun threats made by a disgruntled parent toward officials of the Mount Pleasant Area Junior Football League ( a topic I discussed a few weeks ago). Macur reported that, prior to the threats, tensions between parents involved with the league had reached their boiling point. She also wrote that videotaping crowds has become a strategy to prevent parental conflicts.

A few weeks ago, that tension became physical. After a game, one father slugged another in the parking lot, knocking him to the ground and starting a brawl. That was the first time this year that the state police sped to the stadium, where a sign warns, “No Harassing,” and also lists who is not to be harassed, including officials, league officers, players and cheerleaders…

One league player’s grandfather, who did not want his name to be used for fear of retribution, said parents here were out of control because they “all expect their kid to get a scholarship.” That was just before he told me to keep an eye on his grandson because, “mark my words,” he’ll make the pros someday.

To keep fans in check, some youth leagues have resorted to videotaping the crowds at games. That’s something the Mount Pleasant league will consider — if it returns to the field. Police told me last week that the investigation into the threats against league officials is ongoing and that they have no suspects, fueling even more uncertainty about the league’s future.