"This is my most special place in all the world. ... Once a place touches you like this, the wind never blows so cold again. You feel for it, like it was your child."
Dr. Archibald "Moonlight" Graham, "Field of Dreams" (1989)
Fewer and fewer of our kids are getting to experience their own field of dreams. And if something isn't done soon, they may never get that chance.
The nationwide decline in youth sports is not new, nor has our area been immune to it.
The Schenectady Little League recently merged with Northside Little League to create a single city league, the result of declining participation in both leagues. The Rotterdam and Carman Little Leagues announced their merger last year. The 54-year-old Schenectady Belmont Pop Warner football league is in danger of not surviving until its 55th season this fall, a consequence of people being unable to pay rising registration fees, a decline in local sponsorship, and rising costs for equipment, insurance and field rentals.
A Wall Street Journal article in January highlighted the problem, citing a study by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association and the Physical Activity Council survey of nearly 70,000 households. While the population of kids age 6-17 declined only about half a percent from 2008-2012, participation in youth football dropped 5.4 percent; soccer, 7.1 percent; baseball, 7.2 percent and basketball, 8.3 percent. The only main sports showing an increase in the study were ice hockey, up 64 percent, and lacrosse, up 158 percent.
Kids today seem to spend a lot more time sitting around than past generations, a fact attributable to general malaise, bad eating habits and addiction to the mini-computers they all seem to have surgically attached to their hands. In that national sports study, about 20 percent of kids age 6-17 reported getting no physical activity at all.
What they're losing is the benefits of playing organized sports.
Yes, the physical activity is important. An object in motion tends to stay in motion. But in youth sports, kids also learn many things they carry into adulthood. They learn teamwork and camaraderie. They learn discipline. They learn how to take direction. They learn the importance of mastering fundamentals. They learn how to win and lose with class. They learn how to compete. And they learn how to appreciate the joy of pushing themselves to the limit and achieving a goal.
The community also benefits from youth sports. If kids are introduced to sports at an early age, they're less likely to be doing other activities as teenagers that society frowns upon. Sports also bring communities together, particularly high school sports. Many high schools have trouble fielding certain teams because fewer kids are coming up through youth sports. That takes some of the fun out of life for those who enjoy going to games and rooting for the home team.
So when kids are walking away from sports in droves at age 9, something needs to be done to prevent it, or at least stem the exodus.
Today's kids have a lot more options than their parents and grandparents had. Whereas baseball or football or basketball had their own seasons and were the only games in town, today, kids have other sports more suited to narrow interests and skill sets, activities like soccer, lacrosse, gymnastics and dance. That problem is actually a good one for kids, but a bad one for youth sports programs. So how do you get more kids into youth sports?
One study by ESPN magazine said the number one reason kids quit sports is because it's not fun for them. That could be attributed to a child playing sports that don't suit them, or it could fall on the parents and coaches taking all the fun out of it.
Parents want their kids to succeed. They want their children to get athletic scholarships. So they often have their kids narrow in on one sport and play it exclusively, to the exclusion of other activities that might round out the experience. If your kid plays one sport, eventually he's going to have to travel to find comparable competition. Travel teams deplete house teams, drive up costs, and discourage the other kids who just signed up to have fun and eat free hotdogs after games.
The truth is, only about 5 percent of kids get athletic scholarships after high school, and the average college scholarship is only about $11,000 a year, hardly enough to put a kid through college. If you think your kid is going to take care of you in your old age by making it to the major leagues, you should know that only around 1 percent of high school athletes make it to the pros. The other 99 percent have to get real jobs.
Another contributor to the decline is the economy. Many working parents don't have time to coach or even to drive their kids to sporting events. Nor are they there to push their kids when they need it. Rising costs that drive up registration fees have caused many parents to turn their kids away from organized sports, especially when they have more than one child to enroll.
So what to do about all this?
Everyone — parents, kids, leagues and even employers — have to adapt.
Parents need to consider the slim reality of their kids becoming college or professional athletes, and encourage them to try multiple sports.
Employers need to consider the long-term impact of the decline, and allow for more flexible hours so parents can become coaches and organizers and helpers.
Leagues have to come up with creative ways to save and raise money, including equipment exchanges, bulk purchases or sharing of equipment. They also have to discourage the kind of win-all mentality that turns kids off to sports so quickly, making the leagues more about instruction and fun and less about win-loss records and trophies. They also might have to consider adapting the games to encourage more participation and make games more fun and less boring.
One interesting finding in these studies was that a lot of kids quit because they hate getting hit. So hockey leagues have adopted light-check or no-checking at lower levels, and football leagues have reduced heavy contact while kids are learning to love the sport. The sport of golf is addressing the fun/boredom aspect by allowing shorter rounds on smaller courses.
To address the space-rental costs, sports teams are sharing fields or designing games to be played on half-court or half-ice, allowing twice as many kids to play at once. Some high schools are playing 7-on-7 football or going to flag football, which requires less contact and less equipment.
The kids themselves need to get off their duffs and force themselves to join. And when things get tough, they need to persevere instead of just quitting the first time they sit on the bench or skin their knee.
The goal of all these changes isn't to take away the athleticism or competition of sports. Those are some of other big benefits. But if young kids are dropping out early, or not signing up at all, in favor of playing Tetris on their iPhones, then we've got to do something.
If we don't, we'll be depriving our kids of many lifelong benefits they can only get one time in their lifetimes — during childhood.