Today, fewer American children than in previous generations participate in sports. A study from last year found that combined participation in the four most-popular U.S. team sports—basketball, soccer, baseball and football—dropped among boys and girls aged 6 through 17 by about four percent from 2008 to 2012, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA). This statistic was true across youth leagues and school-sports groups.
There have been a number of suggested causes for these drops, including video games and digital devices, more interest in non-traditional sporting activities such as martial arts and climbing and overbooked lifestyles of both parents and kids. For some, however, the drop is a symptom of a real problem with youth sports: they’re not fun anymore thanks to overzealous parents who push kids into a single sport in the hopes of professional success or college scholarships.
Once upon a time, playing a sport might mean engaging in informal, seasonal games in a neighborhood setting. Today, students are increasingly specializing in a single sport year round in order to excel and increase the chances to be drafted by a college. This is resulting in injuries in youth players that were formerly seen only in professionals, and stressed kids who are frequently seen to be “pushed” by parents to play. This push for excellence may be leaving less talented kids who simply wish to play for fun behind in poorly funded and poorly coached youth leagues.
"The system is now designed to meet the needs of the most talented kids," Mark Hyman, a professor of sports management at George Washington University, told the Washington Post recently. "We no longer value participation. We value excellence.”
According to Hyman, it’s parents who have ruined the magic of childhood sports for many children.
“The adults have won," he said. "If we wiped the slate clean and reinvented youth sports from scratch by putting the physical and emotional needs of kids first, how different would it look? Nothing would be recognizable."
It’s an alarming trend, particularly as youth obesity continues to rise, and the number of overweight and sedentary children in the U.S. climbs. It has public health advocates – including the U.S. Surgeon General -- and league organizers worried, and even professional sports organizations are beginning to realize that fewer youth players in the pipeline means fewer potential drafts in the future.
The trend is particularly likely to leave lower-income kids in the dust, since parents in that group are less able to afford the equipment, fees and travel expenses associated with more formal, specialized youth sports. Pickup games with friends and leagues at neighborhood parks have been left behind by year-round travel leagues. Reduced rates of participation among youth today also mean even lower levels among the next generation, since parental participation in a sport is a strong indicator of whether kids will be interested in playing in the future.
Some youth sports advocates agree with Hyman and believe that sports need to be reevaluated according to what kids want, not what parents want, according to the Washington Post’s Michael Rosenwald.
“Now, researchers are beginning to survey children,” he wrote. “Not unsurprisingly, they have a different idea of what youth sports should be.”