According to Wintergreen Research, which tracks youth sports in the United States, the games kids play are now part of a $15.3 billion industry. With so much money at stake, there are bound to be leagues and coaches who put finances and winning ahead of the interests of children.
But the good news is that for every bad situation, there are probably multiple good ones. It’s up to parents to find the right fit for their kids, otherwise, they’ll become part of another harsh statistic: the 70 percent of kids, according to the National Alliance for Youth Sports, who quit by age 13 because playing is no longer fun.
Tom Farrey, founder and executive director of The Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program, has some tips and suggestions for parents who need help navigating and veering away from, in some cases, what has become a win-at-all-costs industry.
For the kids, not the adults
As youth sports have become big business, the thumbprints of adults have been added to each layer of competition. Everything from specialty camps to so-called elite teams are set up with a race-to-the-top mentality.
“The irony is that we call it youth sports, but it’s really sports run by adults for adults,” Farrey said. “That’s just a fundamental challenge. A lot of the adults are well-meaning in structuring the competitions, but they often don’t ask kids what they want.”
If they did, they would discover that what they’re offering is not what their real customers – the kids – ideally would want.
“What kids actually want is a social experience, room for experimentation. They want to try different things, different sports and different positions,” Farrey said. “So when organized youth sports goes awry, it’s usually because they are tone-deaf to the wants and needs of children.”
How do you know if you’ve signed your child up for a league that might not fit what they really want? Farrey says there are a few warning signs.
First, if coaches don’t even bother to address kids at the start of the year and ask what they want out of the experience – instead launching straight into drills and practices – that’s a red flag.
“If they don’t listen to the customer at all, that’s a big sign,” Farrey said.
Another sign is if there’s an overemphasis on games, trophies and tournaments. Ideally, there should be a 3-to-1 ratio of practice to games. If it’s more like 1-to-1 or worse, it’s likely an environment that isn’t emphasizing individual skill development and doesn’t cater to the needs of kids.
“If there’s a disproportionate focus on winning and certainly if there’s not going to be equal playing time, that’s not a good sign,” Farrey added. “Coaches should be in the business of developing every child, not just those who happen to be the best athletes on the team.”
That last point about supporting all players is key and goes back to the statistic about 70 percent of kids quitting by age 13.
Youth sports can tend to form a funnel, with travel teams formed as early as age 6 or 7 where “we separate the weak from the strong,” Farrey said. “It’s an unfair environment. We are just taking the early bloomers and prioritizing them. That’s unfortunate because sometimes late bloomers are going to be the best athletes.”
Farrey speaks from experience as a father. His youngest son is 14 and was somewhat of a late bloomer in soccer. He played multiple sports growing up before hitting a later growth spurt and hitting his stride as a soccer player.
“If it wasn’t for us being persistent in finding the right opportunities for him and being willing to invest in this, he easily could have been one of those kids who was left behind,” Farrey said.
Empowering is key
That’s part of the reason Farrey believes that empowering parents to help make good decisions for their kids is the key to successful youth sports.
“Parents are the game-changers and gatekeepers in youth sports. Right now they’re just lost,” he said. “They don’t know what to do, and they don’t know what good looks like in athletic development. We need to empower parents to make quality decisions.”
That might mean having a conversation with a coach. Or, if a coach and league aren’t receptive to changing to fit the needs of kids, it might mean finding – or creating – a different option.
For help in making those decisions and asking the right questions, Farrey has helped develop a parent checklist – 10 questions they can ask themselves, their kids and those running youth sports. You can find those questions here.
“When parents were growing up, there were good leagues and good coaches. They made all the difference in the world. Unfortunately, so did the bad ones,” Farrey said. “Parents need to demand quality from their local sports programs. And they need to know what to ask of them.”