Family and Parenting·Sports

The decline of youth sports and the efforts to save them

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April 27, 2017

Here’s one difference between kids growing up now in America and their parents: mom or dad owned a baseball glove.

“I was just OK at baseball when I was young,” said Danny Avery, a father of five. “But there were a lot of kids like that, and we all played at least until high school.”

Avery grew up in northern Utah the late 80s and early 90s. It’s 2015, and his freckled, 11-year-old son James has decided to quit baseball after one season in the Orem Youth Baseball League.

“There’s just so much competition in my kids’ sports leagues now, and not a lot of opportunities for development and recreation,” Avery said. “Kids are either really good, and willing to give it their all, or they just don’t play.”

Baseball is just one sport that kids in America are quitting or never picking up. According to the Wall Street Journal, participation in American youth sports dropped 5 percent from 2007 to 2013. Underlying the decline is a sense that sports for kids have become, in many ways, too demanding.

Inactivity (1)

Unbalanced leagues

Where previous generations of young Americans played in free or cheap city and national sports leagues, the last two decades have seen the rise of elite leagues—created to give kids opportunities to play more games against better teams, and travel further to do so. These leagues were a $5 billion industry in the U.S. in 2009, per the Columbia Dispatch.

Josmer Vela is a 12-year-old boy in Plano, Texas. His shelves are lined with soccer trophies. His walls bear posters of soccer stars, like his hero, Mexico’s “Chicharito.” But he’s already given up on his career.

''It's hard to tell your kid no, but we simply couldn't pay thousands for him to travel with the team.'' —Jose Vela

Jose Vela, Josmer’s father, knew his son was a good player, and was supportive of Josmer’s play. But last year, Josmer’s teammates joined an elite traveling team, and Jose, a sanitation worker, couldn’t afford the participation costs.

“It’s hard to tell your kid no,” Jose Vela said. “But we simply couldn’t pay thousands for him to travel with the team every weekend.”

The Velas’ plight is prevalent. According to a study by ESPN, although only 20 percent of American households earn more than $100,000, such households account for 33 percent of the nation’s participation in youth sports. In other words, a lack of money excludes some kids from sports.

While it’s true that Josmer doesn’t have to play in the elite league, his father will tell you what elite leagues have done to cheap public leagues.

“There’s no competition there,” Jose Vela said. “He wouldn’t get a lot better, because he’d be playing against weak competition. All the good players are on elite teams.”

The youth sports climate has not only become more taxing on participants’ wallets, but also on their schedules and their bodies.

Putting in the time

Where youth baseball in public leagues typically runs from March to July, with around 12 regular season games and playoffs, elite youth baseball is a near year-round affair. Kids play up to 35 regular season games in the spring and summer and continue to practice and play through “fall ball,” which ends in October.

Youth football coaches run their teams like college squads, practicing in the spring and summer, giving their players a winter workout schedule.

''I don't know how you would play football now if you also played baseball.'' —Rock Belnap

Utah high school baseball umpire Rock Belnap has seen a big change in youth sports since he started umpiring 21 years ago.

“Before, I was mainly working games in the spring and early summer,” Belnap said. “Now the regular season goes through the summer, and before you know it, fall leagues start. I don’t know how you would play football now if you also played baseball.”

Increasingly, parents must decide what kind of experience they want their kids to have with sports, and whether they’re willing to go all in for their kids to develop as athletes.

Wear and tear

With so many additional youth practices and games, kids are opening themselves up to more possibility for injury. It’s hard to tell with data whether more kids are getting hurt playing sports now, but family doctor Thomas Carn says he’s seen more serious injuries from youth sports in the last few years.

“They’re sustaining injuries we hadn’t typically seen in kids,” Carn said. “Things like torn ACLs.”

Carn has three kids who have played on competitive sports teams. He thinks youth sports are becoming more intense, leading to more injuries.

''That causes wear and tear on their bodies, and causes them to sustain injuries that are normally sustained by adult athletes.'' —Thomas Carn

“They go hard and fast against really skilled players, and they’re playing all the time,” Carn said. “Kids these days have probably played twice or three times as many games entering high school as they did when I was young. That causes wear and tear on their bodies, and causes them to sustain injuries that are normally sustained by adult athletes.”

ESPN surveyed kids throughout the county who quit sports before finishing high school. According to the survey, 29 percent of boys quit sports because of a health problem or injury, and 12 percent quit because a family member is worried about their physical safety. Girls quit at rates of 27 percent and 14 percent in the same categories.

Why sports matter

With so many families finding valid reasons for kids to walk away from organized sports, one might wonder why sports even matter. Why should anyone be concerned that kids are quitting sports?

One reason is the nationwide obesity epidemic. In 2010, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 35 percent of adults and 17 percent of kids in America are obese. Participation in sports helps kids to develop habits of physical fitness and prevent certain diseases.

The Michigan Youth Violence Prevention Center found that participation in sports reduces crime. The Aspen Institute reported that kids who play sports score higher on tests and are more likely to go to college than non-athletes. Female youth athletes are “less likely to be sexually active, to use drugs, and to suffer from depression.”

Dane McNeil, a father of six and church youth leader from Danville, California, said sports have had a big impact on his children.

“I think its a part of kids’ development,” McNeil said. “They learn sportsmanship, socialization and resilience. In future jobs and responsibilities, adults call upon the lessons they learned playing sports as young people.”

Changing the game

A building wave of parents, coaches and organizations aim to make youth sports what they think they ought to be: accessible to every kid, and more focused on valuable recreational experience—rather than competitive pipelines to professional sports.

Project Play, an organization created by the Aspen Institute, is an American organization that aims to make sports and their benefits available to all kids. The organization holds regular roundtables to discuss the issues facing youth sports and solutions that would make sports better for kids.

''How can youth sports best serve the interest of children, communities and public health?'' —Tom Farrey, Project Play

Tom Farrey is a journalist who heads up Project Play. He said the organization asks, “How can youth sports best serve the interest of children, communities and public health?” and “How can stakeholders work together to get and keep more kids active through sports into the teenage years as a means of giving them lifelong patterns of health and fitness?”

Organizations like Major League Baseball (MLB) are funding projects to make sports more available to demographics that are being shut out from sports, like impoverished urban youth. Little League Baseball provides a Challenger Division, for disabled kids. is a website dedicated to youth athlete injury prevention. It provides information on risk of injury and details preventative measures specific to each sport. The list of organizations aware of America’s youth sports goes on and on.

Efforts to save youth sports mount. In the present, 11-year-old James Avery’s baseball glove is put away in his backyard shed, perhaps for good.

“I just wanted baseball to be fun,” the freckled boy says.

Timeline: Efforts to make youth sports more accessible

Jack Urquhart is from Orem, Utah and is graduating in communications (journalism) from Brigham Young University. He likes writing, sports, his wife and zoos.

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