If you hadn’t yet heard, participation in youth team sports in the United States is declining. In 2014, 26 million kids were playing, representing a 4 percent decrease from five years earlier. Although some of this drop can be attributed children moving to individual sports, some of it is caused by kids leaving team sports and not participating in any organized activity altogether. In an age when childhood obesity is such an issue, this decline should give league directors, coaches, and parents reason to be concerned.
When we talk about protecting youth sports, we aren’t just discussing player safety—which, of course, should be the primary concern for all involved parties. Another important issue is doing everything to ensure youth sports remain a vibrant and available option for today’s children. If parents are disillusioned with their kids’ teams or leagues, instead of finding another team or league, they might simply drop the idea of playing altogether. Enough kids leave and the league could be in trouble and possibly fold, resulting in even fewer kids with access to team sports. Here are four ideas you can implement with your team that can help protect youth sports:
1. Concussion education
Concussions and other brain injuries in sports have been all over the news in the past several years. Some of the decline in football participation numbers can be attributed to the concussion situation—parents don’t want to risk their kids being hurt in the sport that has seemingly comprised most of the brain injury headlines. Unfortunately, much concussion misinformation is out there as well: for example, the belief that one concussion will cause CTE. Educating coaches, parents, and officials on concussions is critical to developing a better understanding of the injury, including symptoms, recovery times, and protocols. Outside resources are available to help you with this training if you are unsure where to begin.
2. Everyone plays, everyone contributes
A unique aspect of youth rec sports is that everybody gets a chance to participate. Rosters should be kept small to ensure kids receive plenty of playing time (for time sports such as soccer and basketball, at least half the game). Yet, if rosters are too large or coaches are too focused on the final score (more on this later), players—and their parents—may feel the experience simply isn’t worth it. Though trying to manage playing time can be tricky for coaches, make the effort so that the kids get enough PT each game to feel they are an important part of the team. Furthermore, do your best to get players a chance at each position throughout the season. A smaller player might not be best suited for goalkeeper, for example, but you should at least give him or her the chance to try the position.
3. Practices that are planned—and are fun
Disorganized practices not only are unproductive, but also can leave parents unimpressed and wondering why they are devoting time and money to an activity in which their children aren’t improving. This isn’t always a case of coaches being lazy—they are busy outside of their volunteer roles and/or may not be familiar with the sport. A little planning goes a long way to running practices that develop skills and foster improvement. Leagues can provide online resources such as practice guides and videos to help these coaches. One other thing: Practices that are fun often yield the best long-term results. Think of ways to make them enjoyable so that kids engage and look forward to each workout.
4. The right perspective on winning and losing
Youth rec sports shouldn’t be about winning and losing—they should be about the experience, the sense of team, and the fun. Once a team starts getting away from that, players who aren’t as skilled may be played less and eventually fall by the wayside. Moreover, opponents of that team might be turned off by a win-or-all-cost attitude, thus leading to parents to think the experience isn’t healthy or safe. Winning and losing might start to become more important for kids as they reach middle school age, but it should never be an issue for 6-year-olds. Promoting teamwork, good sportsmanship, and, again, fun, will lead to players who love their sport no matter what the final score is.
What do you see as the biggest threat to youth team sports?