NEWS FLASH—Participation rates in youth & high school sports are declining. A January Wall Street Journal article references a study conducted by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA.org) & the Physical Activity Council that surveyed nearly 70,000 households. The study reports a 5.4% drop in tackle football participation among 6-18 year olds from 2008-2012. Similar declines are reported for soccer (-7.1%), baseball (-7.2%), and basketball (-8.3%). Officials in the USA Hockey organization found that 43% of their participants were quitting by age 9, information that sparked some major changes in the organization’s approach to hockey at the youth level. However, according to the Census, the population of 6-17 year olds in the U.S. fell only 0.6% in the time span.

The study goes on to state that the number of 6-17 year olds that participate in no physical activity over a twelve-month span is 1 in 5! “In terms of overall health, I’m more concerned about an inactive child than a child suffering a head injury,” says Cedric X. Bryant, Chief Science officer for the American Council on Exercise. These are concerning trends and have stirred debates on reform in youth sports. Why are more kids quitting or not participating in youth sports and how can we reverse the decline?

• “The sport isn’t fun to the child. We have to be aware of single sport specialization, overuse, overworking kids searching for elite athletes; all of these things are causing kids to leave youth sports and not return” – Michael Bergeron, Executive Director of the National Youth Sports Health & Safety Institute
• “The kid who practices hard & who takes pride in being part of the team but only get a few minutes in the game—that kid has too many other options” – Greg Nossaman, President of Ohio High School Basketball Coaches Association
• “Kids vote with their feet. If they are not having fun & enjoying what they do, they walk away from our sport” – Ken Martel, USA Hockey’s leader on youth reforms.
• “Kids don’t like getting hit. As soon as that happens, they’d rather go do something else” – a local high school coach on tackle football at the youngest levels.

A July 2013 ESPN The Magazine issue dedicated to ‘kids in sports’ featured a survey of 565 youth athletes age 10-18 and found that more than 80% compete in sports to have fun—ranking ahead of winning, earning a scholarship, going pro, or playing because their parents want them to (only 10% reported this). Yet, 73% claimed their parents put pressure on them to be successful in games while 77% feel it from the coach too. The feature also did a survey of parents of 9-13 year olds; on average, those parents gave their kids a 32% chance of earning an athletic scholarship, and they gave them an 11% chance of going pro. In reality, about 5% of high-schoolers earn an athletic scholarship and less than 1% will become professional athletes. Haven’t you seen the commercials? Parents, coaches, and even youth organizers in general need to have a long-term approach when considering how kids experience athletics. Too many of them hang on to every down, shot, at-bat, pitch, and game. It’s contributing to the trend of decreased participation.

We’ve all seen the increased penalties, fines, and disqualifications on the NFL & NCAA football fields due to illegal hits, unsportsmanlike play, and pretty much anytime a quarterback it touched. But the awareness and reform needs to start with youth football. By the time a player reaches college football, it very difficult for him to change the way he’s played (and been coached) ever since he started playing. The NFL & USA Football have teamed up and taken some measures to increase participation and make the sport more fun and safer with their ‘Heads Up’ tackling initiative and the NFL Flag program. There needs to be more of an effort at the youth level to make sure players are enjoying their experience and improving themselves personally with the aim facilitate continued participation (and improvement).

Just as players & coaches at the highest levels have to adjust with the current evolution of the game (rule changes, no huddle offenses, dual-threat QBs), everybody in the sport needs to adopt new ways of developing the future generation. Advances in exercise science and weight training sparked an unofficial “Bigger. Faster. Stronger.” credo in every football weight room in the country for the last 30 years. But when the science says Safer, there seems to be some hesitation or debate about what that means. Listen to the science.

USA Hockey got the message. As mentioned, they made some major changes to their program model. The organization’s American Development Model (ADM) now bans body checking at the 12U level, ended major peewee championship tournaments that attracted superteams, discontinued full-ice games, and encourages their players to participate in multiple sports. “ADM recognizes, as pediatricians do, that the needs and characteristics of a 7 year old—physically, cognitively, and emotionally—are not the same as 17 year olds,” says the article. The model recommends a 3-1 practice to game ratio through age 12 in order to take advantage of what neuroscientists call a ‘motor skills window’ when major development occurs. Every player can get opportunities to improve and participate in a well-designed practice. A similar model has been in place in Sweden—which produces Olympic gold medals, world championships, and NHL stars at or above the rate the US does despite one-sixth the number of youth participants.

A major inspiration that has led me to working with young athletes is my own experience in sports growing up. Those were my glory days. I was the best among my peers and I just loved playing ball and competing at everything. I played on the playground, at the park, in the backyard, at family reunions, and everywhere I could. I had great coaches and really cherish my youth sports experience. I know how well the lessons from the field, mat, and mound serve me in my everyday life. My mom would always ask where I was going to live and what I was going to do for work every fall I came back from independent baseball. I always said, “I don’t know. But I will figure it out.” I always did because of the resolve, perseverance, and other humane qualities I developed over years of athletic participation. Sports taught me to listen & follow directions, work hard, be accountable, be a leader, how to win & lose, and so much more. I use those charter traits everyday of my life. I want to pass that on to the next generation of players.

In high school, I had a bright future with a lot of options in sports. I made the mistake all the coaches and academic advisors tell you not to— I always thought I was destined to be a pro and never really thought about what I’d do if that didn’t happen. Well, I didn’t make it; back surgery and an uptick in competition at a Big 10 school left me flat out not good enough. It happens to a lot of athletes, weather in junior high, high school, or beyond, you come to terms that athletics might not be your lottery ticket. But that should never have been your goal in the first place.

I was lucky. After graduating and not going pro, I didn’t know what was next. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. My middling GPA, communication studies degree, and entrepreneurial management certificate were nice but didn’t set me apart from many others in the job world even if I did have a career in mind. A great opportunity came with Diamond Dreams and I was able to blend everything together and do something I love. Now I run a business predicated on communicating with people about football, exactly what I went to college for! I was able to capitalize on the opportunity because of the life-path sports had taken me on.

You should approach athletics as source for your kid to learn values, develop character, and improve him/herself personally. Seek out programs and coaches that emphasize learning fundamentals, & having fun. Winning is fun, but losing builds character and is necessary for everyone to experience. Look for opportunities to practice more and compete less. Keep a realistic perspective and a big-picture mindset on the role of sports in your child’s life.

The video below features two former NFL players, youth coaches, fathers, and a medical professional as they discuss USA Football’s Heads Up Tackling initiative and the landscape of youth football. Listen closely as the panelists mention that flag football may be the best option for our youth and they provide great insights on parenting, coaching, & participation in sports.

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