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What Has Happened to Play?

Last week, I participated in a video conference on the state of youth sports. For those of you who have been subscribing to my newsletter for the past several years, you know that I have written numerous articles about how youth sports has been changing. I have spoken about this topic on my radio show for years and in many of the speeches I have presented to youth sport groups. As I listened to several of the presenters at the conference, my beliefs were validated. A large amount of research is being conducted by many with similar concerns as I have shared. One recent survey found that from 2008 to 2013, the number of kids participating in youth sports dropped from 9 million to 8.2 million. Several reasons were given regarding this drop of almost one million young people. There have been cuts to the number of intramural teams in middle schools, physical education has been eliminated in many schools, there has been a marginalization of recreational leagues in the inner city, and casual and pick-up play has significantly decreased. Many schools have also eliminated recess during school. Specifically, the number one reason why there has been such a sharp drop was overwhelmingly voiced by many young people, “It’s just not fun anymore”.

Research is now starting to focus on the importance that has been placed on “winning” at young ages vs. the importance of learning the benefits that you can gain from participating in sports. Youth sports has become a lucrative business for many. Money can be made in a variety of areas, from equipment and clothing suppliers, to producing awards, to putting on tournaments, as well as from coaching. For many, the costs of joining a team have become extravagant. If your child is on an elite or traveling team, you will pay not only for coaching and team fees, but for traveling to out of town tournaments. This can include hotels, food and gas, as well as tournament fees. I have often heard about coaches who decide in the middle of their season, that they want to enter a tournament they didn’t discuss in the pre-season meeting (if they had one!). This can bring on additional costs you may not have planned for. Many parents have told me, they can’t say no to participating for fear of their child being ostracized by the coach. For many, taking on this additional cost can financially strain them.

One of my major concerns for today’s youth is that you rarely go by an elementary or middle school and see a group of kids playing without a parent either coaching or supervising them. Obviously, in today’s society, safety has become a significant factor. But, when was the last time you saw a group of kids just playing? It appears that almost every sports practice is an organized activity with parental supervision. Many of these practices are structured activities with adults taking the kids thru the practice. I have asked many of the young people I see in my office when was the last time they played a sport with their friends without being at an organized practice, and almost all have stated that they haven’t. They don’t play have time to “play” with their friends because they are overwhelmed with organized practices, homework and other activities. Essentially, they are too tired to just go play.

So what do we do? It would be great to turn back the calendar 30 years in the youth sports world where all of the organized and structured activities were just starting. But, that isn’t going to happen. I feel we need to give kids the opportunity to play in order to create, to use their imagination and freedom to solve problems without a parent, teacher or coach telling them what to do. One suggestion if for coaches to have a practice a week where the kids just play without any supervision or direction. Just let the kids pick sides and play a game on their own. Let them solve their problems without parental involvement. This can give them the opportunity to learn how to problem solve on their own. Another suggestions is to let the kids design their own practice and tell the coaches what they would like to work on. Getting them involved in the decision making can also benefit their ability to use their imagination in order to grow emotionally and psychologically. Also, don’t over involve your kids in too many activities so that they don’t have any free time of their own. Let them have free time to make their own choices about what activities they want to get involved in.

These are just a few ideas that can help kids have fun and just be able to “play” and have fun with youth sports. As always, your thoughts…

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