The Youth Sports System Needs a Makeover


As the dangers of obesity have become more prevalent to Americans, we have consequently shifted to a more active way of living and healthier habits. This lifestyle has definitely translated to youth sports, as an estimated 45 million children and adolescents participate in them. [1]

On the surface, this fact seems a pretty remarkable feat. I mean, getting 45 million kids and teenagers off the couch and onto the fields and courts is a wonderful accomplishment right? Wrong. As we plunge into the murky waters of the youth sports system, it is quite obvious that everything is not all right. In fact, we are far from that.

One of the main problems with youth sports is that it is difficult for some families to afford the costs. While the expenses for sports camps, tournaments, lessons, etc. are obviously a large financial investment, even basic participation for children who play youth sports can be a financial burden. [2] Families have to pay for uniforms, fees for the leagues, proper footwear, etc., and many families in lower socioeconomic areas simply cannot afford all this. In households with a family income of under $25,000, for example, a mere 15 % of that house participates in basketball.[3] Additionally, in houses with a family income of $35,000 or less, 38% of children don’t play even one sport. Hmmm… These results usher in a variety of possible conclusions, one such being that participation in organized sports is not a possible option for most kids growing up in lower income families. These families have limited resources and since 60% of children who played school sports in 2012 had to pay an athletic fee (and only 6% of parents in a survey have received a waiver of this fee) and the average participation costs of these school sports was $381 every year according to the same survey, their income essentially inhibits their opportunity to play youth sports.[4]

Youth sports is basically an opportunity for profit seeking adults who look to benefit by cajoling parents into paying them money in order to get their child to the “next level.” It has become a money-making business for leagues and coaches more interested in monetary gains than improving the players. Moreover, well-off parents fall into the trap of blindly throwing out cash to any charlatan claiming to know the secret to a so-called promising future for children in sports. As competitive parents continue to take youth sports way too seriously, the impact is detrimental for the other kids who are just looking to have fun playing the game. This uber-competitiveness has led to the dropout of many kids in youth sports. Research shows that about “80 percent of children who play adult-organized youth sports drop out by the time they’re 13.”[5] Also, out of 45% of students surveyed who had started sports and quit, 39% of boys and 38% of girls cited their reason for quitting as not having fun, the highest percentage for reason of quitting for both genders.[6] That’s a whopping 1.37 million children who will be quitting youth sports purely on the basis that they are having no fun. Ultimately, until youth sports becomes dedicated to improving the quality of the coaches and leagues and stops becoming consumed by avarice, it will continue being ludicrous.

A significant reason for the amelioration of youth sports is the aforementioned coaches. The significantly high number of kids dropping out because of the lack of fun from playing the sport is mostly a testament of the coaches. When coaches were instructed in coach effectiveness training, an “enhanced sporting experience was reported by most athletes.” [7] These coaches improved the amount of fun players were having, their self-esteem, and overall satisfaction. Players will have more fun when coaches don’t have ulterior motives.  Additionally, youth sports are comprised of many coaches who have no experience or who haven’t actually played their respective sports.

It’s difficult to gauge exactly how many coaches are actually inexperienced, but quality coaching is imperative, and the lack of experience in youth sports today hurts the system. Leagues need to make sure coaches are qualified to coach; their coaching style as well as knowledge of the game needs to be taken into account. Coaches also need to have their priorities straightened out. Winning should not be of the utmost importance for coaches. Social development, physical development, and having fun should be the stressed characteristics.[8] If all these problems that plague youth sports today are amended, the nascence of a much better system can emerge.

To fix many of the problems with youth sports today, leagues need to start becoming more accessible. If every community thought to make youth sports more accessible to everyone, millions of kids who previously played no sports would have the chance to play.  Participation for all youth, regardless of where they live, how much money their family makes, or what ethnicity they are, needs to be available. Sports are an integral part of life as they provide a medium for learning critical life lessons, developing friendships, and providing essential physical activity.[9] Children who play sports at a young age have better time- management skills, are happier, have increased self-esteem, more leadership and social intelligence, and cooperation. [10]  These traits are critical to the development of our youth, and their non-participation in sports can have an egregious effect on their lives in the future. With all of these benefits of playing sports, why are they not available for everyone?

In closing, while youth sports definitively has some grave issues that need solving, there is great potential for the betterment of the system. By fixing many of the root problems that exist in the system and making sports more available to people of all ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses, we can establish a higher level of justice. At the end of the day, sports are too important to the development of the youth for millions of children to be unable to play. Even just making a difference in availability for all youths in a local community will be tremendous. These children can be the necessary spark for future generations and ultimately create an even larger impact on others. As this process continues, we can reach the goal of making youth sports equal for everybody.

[1] Donna L. Merkel, Youth Sports: Positive and Negative Impact on Young Athletes, 4th Edition (Pennsylvania: Dove Medical Press, 2013), 151.

[2] Ibid, 158

[3] Michael Sagas, Sport Participation Rates Among Underserved American Youth (Florida: University of Florida Sport Policy & Research Collaborative), 2.

[4] Ibid, 3

[5] Ken Reed, Youth Sports World Is Insane, (New York: Huffington Post, 2014), 1.

[6] Bruce Kelley, Hey, Data Data—Swing (Connecticut: ESPN the Magazine, 2013), 5.

[7] Ibid, 155.

[8] Ryan Hedstrom, Research in Youth Sports: Critical Issues Status (Michigan: Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, 2004), 9.

[9] Merkel, Youth Sports, 160.

[10] Ibid, 155.

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