I would guess that those of you who read this regularly believe that I am spinning a broken record in my “rants” about youth sports. I don’t bowl, I don’t play cards with the guys on Thursday evenings, I rarely fish and since I don’t own a gun, I don’t hunt. I don’t tinker on old tractors, don’t snowmobile or play much golf. I read a lot and I have spent a great deal of my life involved in athletics, and a large amount of that involved at one level or another with youth sports. If it needs a category in my life, I guess it is my hobby, youth sports that is, not ranting! Though I am sure there are those of you that think that I do that a lot as well!
I wrote an article a while back about the “dropout rate” among youth athletes in which I pointed out that a very high percentage of kids who play sports when they are young quit playing by the time they reach high school. 80% of the kids playing youth sports in this country right now will not be playing in high school. In that article I provided information that explained this high “dropout rate” on burnout, injuries, and the stress that comes with meeting the demands of adults.
I believe it is important to take a very close look at the expectations we have for our kids. Honestly, I think most parents you talk to who have their children playing soccer, softball, football or whatever, state that their number one priority is for their child to have fun. But I don’t quite buy it. That’s the response they are supposed to give. It is the cliché answer. For many parents, I believe that they are living out their dreams through their kids. Maybe they didn’t have the level of success they had hoped for when they competed back in the day, or if they competed at all. Perhaps they are hooked on the fact that sports today offer so many more opportunities than when they were kids that they don’t want to be left out. I know for some it gives them something to brag on. “Yep, Blake played eight baseball games in Minneapolis over the weekend. Went 12 for 20, two home runs and a couple doubles.” “Craig is 82 and 4 this wrestling season. He’s headed to state next week and shooting for a state title.” “Shelly is on a travel team playing middle and is getting looked at by college coaches at these volleyball tournaments on the weekends.” Parents are establishing their own self-worth, their own self-esteem on the successes of their children! Even though many parents have an idea of the statistics – 1 in 6000 Iowa boys will make the NFL and 2.5 kids in 10,000 will play in the NBA – they still think that their child will beat the odds!
The reality is that high school participation in Iowa has dropped by 16,000 kids over the past five years. Schools in our immediate area are having difficulty fielding teams, some dropping sports or looking for another school to share with them. Just this summer we got a request from a local school wanting to know if we would share girls basketball because they thought they would only have 10 girls at most go out, and the majority of those were 9th graders. Last year, only two teams in the Upper Iowa Conference were able to fill a complete wresting lineup. Our numbers at NFV are fairly solid right now, but will they continue? Will teenagers still have the desire to play sports in high school after already having played for a number of years? What can be done to provide solid learning opportunities for kids to learn how to play the games, and yet not make the decision to quit when they get to high school?
One idea was shared with me a number of years ago by a long-time college baseball coach who had been talked out of retirement to coach a high school team. Like many successful coaches at the high school level, he recognized the importance of being involved with the youth program to see that there was good coaching and that kids were learning the right way to play the game. But he also realized that kids needed to just play and have fun like we all did back before video games and over-involved parents. So he set up a sandlot program too. The way it worked was actually quite simple. First off he publicized it with all of the youth teams in town and their parents and every Tuesday morning in the summer he and three or four high school kids brought a few bats and balls to the one of the parks in town and kids showed up to play, just like we did when I was growing up. Teams were picked and they played, sometimes using modified rules like “pitcher’s hand” or played modified games like “work up.” There was never a day when kids didn’t show up, and while most also played in organized leagues at night it sure looked like they were have a lot more fun in the sandlot on those mornings.
The idea above is just one. I am sure that there are others, but the fundamental thing that I believe needs to happen is that we need to back off a bit on how many games some kids play or matches they wrestle. Maybe instead of wrestling 80 matches, scaling it back to 40 and taking some time to go and watch older kids wrestle so your son can learn by watching older kids compete will keep a young man wrestling when he is in high school. Perhaps instead of playing in ten softball tournaments in the summer, five will keep your daughter fresh and leave some weekends open to enjoy family or other pursuits. In many respects with youth sports, less may in fact be more.