Tuesday, Oct 03rd

Are Kids Playing Enough Sports?

KidsSports(Submitted by Scarsdale Village Trustee Sameer Ahuja)

“Wait kids, whoever said you had to be good to play football? You play football because you want to. You play football because it’s fun. You play football so you can go out there and pretend you’re Joe Montana throwing a touchdown pass, or Emmett Smith going for a long run. And even if those Cowboys are better than you guys. Even if they beat you 99 times out of 100 that still leaves… one time.”
~Little Giants (1994)

Have you seen the 90’s classic, Little Giants? I’m reminded of it (and its 2000s copycat Kicking and Screaming) when it comes to youth sports.

Here’s a quick recap of the plot: Danny O’Shea (Rick Moranis) is a gas station manager living in the shadow of older brother Kevin (Ed O’Neill) a coach for the local youth football team. Trouble arises when Kevin's team turns down Danny's daughter Becky (Shawna Waldron) because she’s a girl. Danny creates a competing team though the town can realistically support just one. To prove his worth against his brother, Danny coaches his misfits in a crucial playoff.

This film emphasizes how success isn't solely determined by winning. After all, sports are supposed to be fun!

Not only are youth sports a joy to many, but they also provide untold benefits like teamwork and time management skills. Student-athletes must learn to manage school, practices, travel, homework, a job, and more. In many cases, their schedules can become more complex than those of some adults.

Despite so many positives, it seems as if sports have lost some of its spark in recent years. The very fun (Little Giants evokes) appears to have vanished to an extent.

What’s to blame for this turn of events?

Until lately, the pandemic was to blame. Stuck at home, youngsters missed entire seasons after years of hard work. In fact, according to a study by Project Play, kids spent 60% less time playing sports during COVID-19.

But while youth sports definitely took a hit in the past two years, there’s also been a steady decline for at least a decade now—long before social distancing was ever a thing.

So why are kids hanging up the cleats? First off, youth sports have become prohibitively expensive for some. This can create a rift between the haves and have-nots. Meanwhile, community sports programs shuttered in recent years, as they simply can’t compete with increasingly prestigious travel leagues. (This is partly due to how excelling in marquee level sports can earn young people coveted college scholarships.)

When I was growing up, college was more affordable. Many kids didn’t go to school on a sports scholarship or even seek this option. Now with so many higher entry barriers, some parents see sports as a golden ticket to higher education. No longer are good grades and high SAT scores enough. Now, their kids feel pressure to supplement these with sports achievements.

This development may expose another problem: pressure. In a hilarious tryout scene, one dad from Little Giants, describes his over-muscled son, “Won the eight-year-old division of the pass, punt, and run when he was five years old.”

As ridiculous as this scene is, there’s a kernel of truth to it. Children are often expected to start extracurriculars and sports at much younger ages.

Returning to the Project Play study, the author explains, “The more money parents have, the less interest their child has in sports.”

So, it’s not always about finances. Sometimes it’s due to kids’ own disinterest. Certainly, when playing becomes more about achieving other outcomes, the fun melts away. A sport becomes a job. And the magic is gone.

Other critics blame the decline on increased intensity. Thanks to the higher-stakes environment student-athletes now face, injuries are more prevalent. In an interview with Bryant Gumble, sixteen-year-old Emily Gervais explains how an ACL tear ended her soccer career before it ever took off.

Starting her sport at age 4, Emily soon joined a club team. This ran for 11 months out of the year. As Emily details, “There are girls out there that are practicing all day, every day, and if you're not one of them, they will beat you to the spot you want.”

Due to such extreme strenuousness, Emily had to retire from soccer after three— yes, three—knee surgeries. All before reaching 16.

This begs the question: Are we putting too much pressure on our kids? In this same interview, Gumbel talks to Dr. Min Kocher, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in pediatrics. After collecting data from other surgeons, Kocher was shocked to discover youth surgeries skyrocketed nearly 500% in just 10 years.

All this pressure is understandably leading kids to alternatives like video games. Mostly a sedentary activity, it behooves us to understand their appeal. Today’s games are no longer the same mindless side-scrollers of decades past. More akin to works of art, they offer entire worlds, where kids can now socialize, create, even seek the freedom to actualize themselves.

Should kids be more active? Yes, of course.

But we should also realize video games may offer the last (largely) adult-free frontier for children. It’s a space of relief for many kids who are buckling under increasing pressure to perform at school and extracurriculars. All while being forced to continually compare themselves to others on social media.

Our solution may lie here.

As mentioned in my recent TikTok article: today’s kids crave autonomy. Many seek out spaces where they can be themselves, uninhibited by the adult gaze, whether it be parents or teachers. Kids are also highly proficient with digital tech, including tools that haven’t yet been integrated into sports. Imagine a world where kids use digital tech to help each other improve how they play even more. Might there be a healthy way to marry analog and digital even more for youth sports? (I, for one, think it could be a real game-changer.)

Remember, sports come with health benefits baked in.

These can’t be easily replicated by indoor activity. In that spirit, let’s bring back the joy of sports. After all, before we know it, our kids will be grown, out of the house, and most likely… not Lebron James. And that’s okay! Here’s to appreciating the chance to explore such interests without any burden attached to the results. Playing this way just might bring back the fun.

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