Jason Gay, sportswriter for the Wall Street Journal, has an excellent piece today about youth sports. He uses a proposal in the North Carolina state legislature to restrict “participation trophies” as the hook to argue that the real problem isn’t too much recognition but rather too little participation:
Numbers have been dropping for a while, both pre- and postpandemic. According to the Aspen Institute’s Project Play, which monitors data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, the percentage of children aged 6-12 who regularly played a team sport dropped from 45% in 2008 to 37% in 2021. That drop was under way well before Covid—participation fell to 38% in 2019, the year before the pandemic. . . .
Retention is an issue. Children start playing, but quit. Others don’t start playing at all. A factor here is the shrinking state of recreational sports programs—the sort of casual, teaching-oriented leagues that many of us played in when we were young. These leagues take any child, don’t cost a lot and don’t act as if someone is going to lose a scholarship if a fly ball gets dropped.
Recreational (and school) programs continue to be plundered by pay-for-play travel leagues, which hoard talent, overemphasize specialization, and put 100s of miles on the odometers of tired parents who can’t believe they have to sit through yet another indoor soccer triple-header.
Travel sports, which can begin in the single-digit ages, alienate latecomers and slow-to-develop athletes, to say nothing of children from families that struggle to pay fees that can push into the thousands. Team participation increasingly correlates with income—just 24% of children from families with incomes of $25,000 play regularly, versus 40% from families with an income of $100,000 or more.
Making fun of participation trophies is fine; however, Gay’s point is far more compelling. Lower participation is worrisome — one of the many manifestations of Americans’ lower involvement in community organizations.
Sometimes the argument against expensive travel leagues is framed as ruining sports for kids, and there’s truth to the problems with overuse injuries and grueling schedules that suck the fun out of the game. But whatever distortions the kids face, it’s ten times worse for the adults. It’s not the kids who are screaming at officials or, in some cases, brawling with them in the parking lot after the game. And those overuse injuries and grueling schedules are ultimately the responsibility of the adults who coach the teams.
Parents need people who love them to tell them four truths:
1. Your child will not play professional sports.
2. Your child is highly unlikely to play college sports.
3. Your child might not even play high-school sports.
4. And that’s okay.
A town in New Jersey has come up with a solution for unruly parents at Little League games (and you know it must have been bad if even people from New Jersey thought the yelling was getting out of hand). The local Little League is making a new rule: If you yell at an umpire, you have to volunteer to umpire. “You’re not allowed to come onto our complex until you complete three umpire assignments. Once you do that, then we’ll let you come back,” explained the league president to ABC. They’d have a regular official on the field to make sure calls are correct. “The point is for parents to see what it’s like on the field and how the job might not be as easy as it looks,” ABC reported.
At the Little League level, that’s a great solution. At higher levels, where officiating is a more precise skill, leagues should enforce stricter parent and coach behavior standards. Paying a lot of money for a travel-league team should not buy the privilege to yell at kids or officials, and high-school games with no money on the line are not worth losing your cool over a call nobody will remember the next day.
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