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In a recent report from The Physical Activity Council, participation by both children and adults has taken a dangerous turn for the worse. In the newest report, 28.3% of Americans above the age of 6 are inactive. (1)
The number of children playing sports has dropped 10% since 2009 and fewer kids are playing team sports such as baseball, basketball, soccer and touch football. (1) The scariest statistic that came out of this report is that 70% of kids over age 13 have quit sports altogether. Teenagers, who seem to need exercise the most, are quitting organized sports in droves.
In my first book, Body, Mind and Sport, I talked about the intensity of youth sports and how kids are being pressured to perform, pushed too hard and eventually quit. This is not a new problem. Back in 1994, I cited a Louis Harris poll that suggested that 50% of American kids experience their first major failure as a sports failure. Failing to climb the ropes in gym class was a public humiliation.
Today, experts are blaming parents for pushing their kids too hard in hopes they will get a college scholarship. Parents and coaches often drive the kids too hard – to the point that it is just not fun for the kids. In the last 10 years, playing on the local YMCA team isn’t cool enough. If you are not playing on a club/travel team, there seems to be a feeling of failure associated with playing at a lower skill level. Ten and twelve year olds really just want to play, but are often pushed by parents and peer pressure to compete for a club team position that they may not be ready for. Club teams can start as early as 8 years old, and often practice 3-4 days a week with games or tournaments on the weekends and are required to travel out of state a couple times of year. (2)
Club teams do their best to create different skill level teams, but the undercurrent for many children is “if I don’t perform well” I will be judged, and possibly humiliated. I remember in one of my 11 year olds soccer games, an out-of-control mom from the sidelines was screaming at my son to get into what she thought was the right position. That was the beginning of the end of his soccer career. By 13, he had officially retired from competitive team sports.
There are kids, however that thrive on competition and live, breathe and eat sports and cannot get enough of them. These children, usually the “pitta” body type, should be allowed to play at their highest level. I think the problem is partly due to the culture of glorifying athletes, and most kids try to model that behavior. If the parents are intense sports fans, the child will often feel they have to develop these skills to please them, even if it is not something they actually love doing.
I believe we, as parents, should expose our children to as many activities as possible to find something they love, look forward to doing, gain satisfaction from, and thrive in. It might be sports, music, art, drama, academics, dance, or a host of other activities that are either competitive or non-competitive. The key here, is that it is important for the kids to love what they do and to stay active for a lifetime. With 70% of teenagers leaving team sports by the age of 13, too many kids end up inactive.
Professor Mark Hyman of George Washington University may have said it best, the system “designed to meet the needs of the most talented kids” is driving out those who can’t keep up. “We no longer value participation. We value excellence.” (2)
Amanda Visek, an Exercise Science professor at George Washington University, recently surveyed nearly 150 children about what they found fun about sports. Her sample included kids who play both travel and recreational sports. The kids identified 81 factors contributing to their happiness. (2)
Number 48 was winning. Also low on the list: playing in tournaments, cool uniforms and expensive equipment.
High on the list: positive team dynamics, trying hard, positive coaching and learning. Whenever Visek presents her findings to win-hungry parents and coaches, there is a lot of pushback. (2)
Yet the number 1 reason why kids quit sports, she concluded, is that it’s no longer fun. (2)
The good news is that there are many initiatives to help bring the fun back into sports for all kids. There are thousands of success stories from youth sports that has given generations of youths a love for sports and being active for a lifetime. Perhaps the competitive pendulum has swung a bit too far for some kids. My hope is that this report will spawn healthy adjustment to help all of our kids stay active and healthy, and do what they love simply because they love doing it.