Are Youth Sports still sport?

Sport= “An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.” I wonder how many kids still think of sports as entertainment? Physical activity? Fun? If you haven’t asked your child in a while if they are enjoying participating in sports, it’s time to ask.

Research screams the numbers to us each day. Kids are dropping like flies out of youth sports. Why? Years ago, the point of a sport was for kids to have a sense of team and belonging. They learned about the sport in which they were participating, made some friends, and hopefully had an opportunity for some physical activity. I don’t think anyone would describe youth sports today like that.

Faithful readers of this blog know that my kids are in their 20’s, so I can speak with a lot of experience under my belt when it comes to children in sports. I raised two boys who were a part of many sports teams, from baseball, to soccer, cross country, football, and hockey. I live in Hermantown Minnesota, and high school hockey fans will have lots of opinion about hockey in Hermantown. Those who live in Hermantown will likely love the team. Those around the state may have different opinions. Both of my boys played youth hockey from age 4 to age 15 in Hermantown. One was cut trying out for the high school team in tenth grade. The other still plays today at college where he plays on a hockey scholarship. I have seen both sides of the story of hockey. I can tell you the secret to success of high school sports. YEP- the magic that allows Hermantown to produce successful teams and multiple college scholarship winners. The magic is in the numbers.

The bigger the number of kids that a youth program can get to register, the more successful the high school program. But getting kids to register isn’t the only magic. They need to stick around. You see, if each grade has 15-20 kids consistently playing a sport throughout their primary grades, the 5-7 kids that make the high school team will be highly skilled. This will happen automatically. No one needs to go to camps, play year round, or be on traveling teams. The law of numbers will prevail. Give children equal opportunity throughout their younger years, and you will have a great high school program. Simple huh?

So- why isn’t this happening? The formula seems easy enough right? Well…… parents get involved. You know the ones who “know” their child is a savant at age 10 and needs to play at a higher level than the other kids playing at age 10. Thus- speciality teams and traveling teams. People will leave their community teams to play on a team where they believe the opportunity is better suited to the talent their child has. The reality is unless you plan on moving away, your child will need to come back and play with the kids you’ve chosen to leave behind once they reach the high school level. Hmmmm. I wonder how that will go.

What makes more sense for the health of a quality high school program? Keeping high talent kids to lift up and teach kids who need to work harder on their skills or having those naturally talented kids walk away from those kids? A team is only as good as it’s weakest player. Why not put the focus on making the hard-working, gritty kids who may not be naturally gifted at a sport better instead of hoping they leave? Worse yet, making their experience in youth sports so challenging, they choose to quit. What is the lesson in that for them or the naturally gifted athlete?

I have witnessed lots of interesting events over the course of 20 + years in sports. I have enjoyed many, but not all. When my youngest son played hockey, he quickly showed himself to be one of the more naturally talented players early on. Many of his friends parents would pay their kids for the number of goals they would get in a game. Sometimes I would see kids get paid (yes- money!) for their efforts on the ice. Sadly, I also saw kids in tears when parents told them they didn’t work hard enough or score enough goals to get their monetary reward that day. My husband and I challenged our son in a completely different way. We asked him if he could get an assist for every single person on his team. This made him a selfless player. It also gave him a different way of looking at the game. He developed vision of the ice and opportunities for scoring that many other kids never did as they were too busy shooting at the net every time they touched the puck. He also had an incredible sense of pride when he helped players score their very first goal. I was proud of his effort.

As the years progressed, I watched the kids who were pressured and many times paid for their efforts drop from the rosters. They were no longer having fun. Shouldn’t playing on a team be fun? Even professional athletes will reference the fun they have in a hard fought competition. Why would we take the fun out of sports for our kids?

My advice for parents- stop thinking of sports as a way to pay for college. Let’s face it, if you took all of the money you spent on registration and camps over the years and invested it, your kid would likely go to college and have a down payment for their first house. Sports are not vocation. Sports are fun. Sports are a way to meet friends. Sports give kids a sense of belonging. Sports teach compromise, hard work and cooperation. Sports teach a love of physical activity and fitness. That’s enough!

I will end with one of my favorite youth sports memories to put into perspective the view children have on sports. A team mate of my son was playing in a mini mite (littlest kids) hockey tournament in a local arena on Saturday in January. Coaches had lined up the teams so similarly abled kids would play against each other. One child on my husbands’ team went out for his shift and spent the entire time skating around with a player form the other team. The buzzer went off (signalling a line change) and that player came to the bench saying, “I made a new friend!” The next shift change, this same player went back out searching for his friend and they spent two full minutes skating around together chatting away. This time when the boy came to the bench, he exclaimed, “I LOVE that kid!” My husband smiled. What a great day for that player, and he never even scored a goal.

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