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Collins: Important To Consider What Kids Want

August 23, 2018

If you’ve caught any of the Little League World Series from Williamsport this week, and a quick glance at the packed slope in the outfield or at ESPN’s television ratings will indicate you indeed have, you’re certainly going to rank the 2018 tournament as one of the best ever. Every night, it seems like there’s another game ending in walk-off fashion.

It’s difficult not to be impressed.

It’s difficult not to get immersed.

It’s difficult to remember, as Little League Baseball absorbs the worldwide attention this week, the kind of concerns that are circling around the future of youth sports.

The kids representing American youth from Coventry, Rhode Island, to Peachtree, Georgia, from Des Moines to Houston to Honolulu are being raised in an athletic world very different from the ones Baby Boomers and Generation Xers could possibly understand. They have more athletic options and a different play structure and a focus on competition and a devotion to results that many insist, frankly, borders on the unhealthy.

Some say that focus and devotion leads to the development of more elite athletes. Others insist it turns so many more potential great ones away.

The Aspen Institute’s Project Play initiative, which “develops, applies and shares knowledge that helps build healthy communities through sports,” released its “State of Play: 2017” report last year to study participation in youth sports. It found that, from 2011 through 2016, the number of children ages 6 through 12 who competed in a team sport actually rose 0.8 percent. But, the ones who participated in one of those team sports on a regular basis actually fell 4.6 percent. Broken down by sport, the largest decreases in regular competition came in baseball (4.1 percent), basketball (3.6) and soccer (2.7). Football fell during that time, but by just 0.4 percent.

“One of the concerns is, participation is falling off. That’s partially true,” said Dr. Michael Mould, the former athletic director at Keystone College and Marywood University. “Participation in youth sports, in total, has probably never been greater. Where it’s falling off is in the classic, traditional, organized sports — baseball, football, basketball. ... Some of the less-organized sports — skateboarding, snowboarding, in-line skating, BMX biking — have exploded. And I think there’s a reason for that: Some of these organized sports have not brought the kids what they’ve wanted.

“Number one, and research shows this, they want to have fun. They want to learn new things, have a good social experience, come away feeling good about themselves. In far too many cases, this is not happening.”

Now, that’s a novel question.

What do the kids want?

Previous generations of kids had the opportunity to make sporting decisions for themselves. They found empty sandlots or neighborhood courts to play on, picked their own teams, established their own rules, enforced them on their own and settled their own disputes. They went home when they determined the game was over.

That never happens anymore.

There are some really good reasons to support a sporting experience that is exclusively supervised by adults in this day and age, for reasons that don’t need to be detailed here. And, the path to providing the type of experience in youth sports that will appeal to the vast majority of potential players is one nobody has concrete directions to traverse. But, a few of the same themes do pop up consistently.

The biggest is travel teams and clubs are taking kids away from the community youth teams, rendering competition against the better athletes in a given area available only to those who can afford it from a financial or scheduling perspective.

“If I were king for just one day,” former Wallenpaupack athletic director Mark Kirsten said, “I would say there would be no travel teams for kids until they were at least 14 years old.

“In youth sports, when the better players essentially still play travel, then you’re not developing those mid-tier players or lower-tier players because they aren’t facing the better pitchers and not playing against the better players and learning what they need to do to get better. Usually then your good coaches are going to travel programs with their better players, so you’re not getting the good coaching and encouragement that you need at that youth level.”

Others, like Dr. Mould, say the trends can be changed if enough steps are taken through coaching education and programs run by national organizations like the Positive Coaching Alliance and The American Sport Education Program and championed locally by the Bochicchio Sports Character Initiative. Coaching education courses are now required for participation by the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, and Kirsten was the first AD in the area to mandate them at his own school.

“Sport,” former University of Scranton athletic director Dr. Gary Wodder maintained, “is for the participant. ... You have to try to help the people who coach to coach in a better, more positive manner.

“If participation goes down, OK. That’s life. But kids who do participate, make sure it’s a good experience, and it can be a much better experience as far as who the coaches are and what are their philosophies and objectives, not the proverbial emphasis on winning. You get 50 kids coming out for Little League in a town, when 10 years ago it was 100? OK, work with those 50, because you’re going to spend a whole lot of time trying — and I’m not sure you’re going to get the results — getting those other 50 back. Work with what you’ve got, and then if a kid comes out and has a great time, learns, gets better and has fun, they’re going to tell their friends this is really great and you ought to come join us.”

This week in Williamsport, kids are garnering all the attention, and rightfully so. As soon as we start to understand on a broader scale that what they’re doing is atypical, not a reason to play but a byproduct of it, we can help youth sports grow even more and serve the kids in our communities who need it most.

DONNIE COLLINS is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at dcollins@timesshamrock.com and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT

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