Three Ideas for Reversing the Decline in Youth Sports

Startling new research should concern everyone involved in youth athletics.

According to a fascinating Wall Street Journal article, “Combined participation in the four most-popular U.S. team sports — basketball, soccer, baseball and football — fell among boys and girls aged 6 through 17 by roughly 4% from 2008 to 2012.”

One of the many suspected reasons behind the decline is that many less-elite athletes have gone missing:

“The kid who practices hard and who takes pride in being part of the team but who gets only a few minutes in the game — that kid has too many other options,” says Mr. [Greg] Nossaman, head basketball coach at Olentangy Liberty High School in Powell, Ohio.

How long will they ride the bench?

As parents, coaches and administrators, we understand sports are unique among the many options available to our kids. When the player at the end of the bench substitutes video games, social networking or smartphones for organized athletics, they miss an opportunity to develop life-long skills in a safe, supervised environment.

Teamwork, leadership, sportsmanship and exercise habits are hard to find online.

But kids don’t show up to practice to cultivate life skills. They play sports for the same reason they enjoy video games: because they’re fun. Unfortunately, experts believe that’s exactly what’s absent from some leagues:

“The main reason kids fall away from youth sports “is that the sport isn’t fun to the child,” says Michael Bergeron, Executive Director of the National Youth Sports Health & Safety Institute. “We have to be aware of single sport specialization, overuse, overworking kids searching for the elite athletes; all of these things are causing kids to leave youth sport and not return.”

For our leagues to grow and thrive we must keep athletes at all skill levels engaged. Losing 15% of participants, like Ohio high school basketball has over the last five years, is a frightening prospect for most youth-focused sports organizations.

How do we help ensure sports remain enjoyable for both the potential Division I scholarship athlete and the child who will win “most improved”?

  • First, we must clearly define our leagues and their goals. That means setting expectations for coaches, parents and youth. Is elite competition the goal? Or is it learning new skills and ensuring playing time for all? How much practice time is expected? What will be the points of emphasis in practice and in games? The league’s vision must be clearly described in order for parents to find the right fit for their children. And once defined, we must be aware of “competitive creep.” As the season goes on, early expectations can sometimes be forgotten in the effort to win.
  • Next, it is essential that leagues assess their players not just to find the strongest and fastest, but to find out what each player does well. That information allows coaches to stronger teams based on their players’ complimentary abilities and find ways to help develop their athlete’s own unique strengths. Moreover, our kids are more likely to have fun when they are placed on a team that values their skills and positioned where they are more likely to succeed.
  • Finally, we must remember to make room for all skill levels within the league’s defined parameters. The very best athletes will often gain the most attention, but very few of our children will go on win multi-million dollar shoe contracts. We want our kids to grow, learn and enjoy their time in athletics, and that means ensuring even the kid at the end of the bench wants to return next year.

The future of our leagues depend on it.

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