Back in the summer of 1970 I was commissioner, general manager, head coach, and player in my own baseball league in Ames, Iowa, more specifically in University Village north of the Iowa State campus where I lived with my parents and brother when my dad was in graduate school. I have always wanted to run the show, and I did. I gathered up the kids living in the apartments during those summer months and I put together a baseball league. We had kids living in university housing from all over the world and most of them at least knew a little about playing baseball, though a few didn’t have a clue. Didn’t matter. They all played. I drove moms nuts because I insisted that they all bring a white t-shirt (remember, back in 1970 there was no such thing as a colored t-shirt, let along screen printed ones!) over to our apartment and we went nuts with magic markers. I knew all of the major league teams at the time and what their uniforms looked like and we took those markers and made our own. I did run into resistance from moms when I decided we were going to have an all-star game and everyone needed new uniforms! Apparently one white t-shirt marked up to look like a Dodger uniform was enough! We played every day near the playground area and I kept stats. By the way, I led the league in every positive category! Hmmmm. Perhaps the stat keeper was a little biased!
This is just one of my childhood memories of playing in the sandlot, backyard, or in the park with friends. We changed sports with the seasons and wore out the knees of our Tuf-Skins. Other than those homemade t-shirts that served as our jersey, no uniforms, no special shoes, no wristbands, no $300 bats, no private lessons for hitting, no private lessons for pitching. None of that. Just a group of kids from the neighborhood playing outside. We loved it! We laughed and we cried. We argued and got really mad! We called people names. And once in a while we fought. We also put an arm around a buddy that had a bad day. Best of all, there were no adults around!
So how come when I drive around West Union on an incredibly nice summer day, I don’t see any kids anywhere outside? Correction: one young man riding a bike across the highway. Oh, there are a lot of reasons that can be listed. Both parents working and no one to push the kids outside, video games, and the list can go on and on. But another reason is that the kids don’t have to go outside and play with their friends because adults have taken over and organized their lives so much for them that they already do! Confusing? Because adults have become so busy with their lives, both work and personal, they have scheduled their children’s lives to the point where kids don’t know what it is like to gather up their friends and go outside and play ball. And I would argue that the model we have created for youth sports in this country is broken. We have imparted adult values on what should be kids games and the ramifications are very negative.
Let’s take a look at some numbers. Three out of four American families with school-aged kids have at least one playing an organized sport. However, by the time kids are 15-years old, according to Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine, 80% of those kids have quit playing. Think about that. Of those little kids that swim on swim team, play softball and baseball, play basketball, wrestle and play football, by the time they basically start high school, they quit playing sports. Some kids are sick of playing, as today there seems to be a growing gap between the child’s desire to enjoy the sport and some adult views that youth sports are “mini-versions of win-at-all-costs adult sports.” I have been involved with youth sports from small-town recreational programs to national elite levels and all one has to do is take a step back and look for a couple of things. Take a look at the players and then look at the parents. Who is more intense and engaged in the game emotionally? Quite often it is the parents. Where are the negative comments coming from, whether directed toward the officials, coaches, other team, or players? Nearly every time, it comes from the parents, not the players. It is almost sad to say, but I have seen parents hauling kids all over the country with the goal of getting their child in front of college coaches or scouts because they want so much for their child to get a college scholarship to play. Maybe I am a bit callused, but I believe that for many parents it is for their own ego. Watch the pride that comes across a parent’s face when they talk about the colleges that are “looking at their child.” Parents love to brag on their kids and what greater level of accomplishment can they share than to say they got a scholarship offer.
What is scary is that for many of those kids that quit playing before they have a high school career, injuries have been a primary reason. From a 2013 study of 1200 young athletes, those that concentrated on a single sport were 70-93% more likely to be injured than those who played multiple sports. The single sport focus vs. multiple sport participation issue is one that can be addressed at length, but what these findings basically say is that kid’s bodies are getting worn out at a very young age. Because we have organized youth sports into this model that works for adults, because some parents are doing everything possible for that elusive college scholarship, and because there are people out there that have recognized that there is a way to make a buck (actually millions) on this youth sports industry, the pawns, err, kids, are getting worn out and tired of playing games at a very young age. For years our culture has loved the high school hero, but many of those potential heroes are on the sideline doing something different than playing sports.
There is no question America is a sports-obsessed society. I love sports and am very interested in all aspects of the games we play. But things are out of whack right now and while many things have improved over time, I am not so sure that this is the case. Before I end my days on this planet, I hope that one day I will drive by a corner lot or a park and see a dozen kids out there playing ball. Better yet, they will be arguing over whether one of them was out at first base, and figure out a way to resolve it on their own, without an adult in sight.