Let them play: Encouraging youth sports in the helicopter parent era

October 3, 2018 | Posted in: Elementary, High School, Middle Years

You can see them in communities across the country.

There are two in one of the older parks my family frequents. Branches from aging trees have nearly grown into the tops of the metal-mesh canopies. What were once diamond-shaped dirt lanes have long since gone to grass.

When was the last time anyone actually played a game on these ball fields?

I have heard anecdotal accounts in my community about how youth sports have struggled to get enough children to play. A neighboring school district didn’t even have enough boys to field a varsity soccer team this fall.

It turns out, youth sports – both in organized leagues and the “sand lot”-type pick-up games once played on the old baseball diamonds – may be in decline.

A study released last year by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association and the Aspen Institute found that youth sports participation for the 6 through 12 age group fell by 8 percent during the preceding decade.

There appear to be a number of reasons for the decline, and some are specific to an individual sport. Concern over concussions has impacted youth football in recent years, for example. Other causes frequently mentioned include the “hypercompetitive” mentality that youth sports are a gateway to a college athletic scholarship; the pay-to-play approach often associated with youth soccer; increasing academic workloads; and competition from screen time. Sadly, the study cited in the article above found that as family income levels fell, so did the frequency with which children played sports.

When the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup (which was a national tragedy in my family’s household), the NY Times took a look at the state of youth soccer in America. The NY Times article indicated 35 percent of youth soccer players come from households that earn more than $100,000 while, while just 11 percent come from households earning less than $25,000 a year.

Why are youth sports important?

Much has been written about the value of youth sports for a child’s development. I largely subscribe to the theory that youth sports are a net benefit for most kids by inspiring teamwork, self-discipline, competitiveness, confidence, good sportsmanship, healthy lifestyle habits and a range of lessons that help build successful lives.

There are certainly differences of opinion about that, and some kids are just more interested in other activities. There are also negatives associated with team sports and sports specialization, including risk of injury, expense, and, sometimes, an unhealthy win-at-all-cost mentality.

Is it just a coincidence that obesity, anxiety and depression are on the rise among America’s youth?

Peter Gray is a research professor of psychology at Boston College who has a long-running column in Psychology Today.

In one of his columns, Gray takes a deep dive into what he dubs “informal sports,” which he indicates are in a “huge decline.”

Informal sports are those that kids take the initiative to attend, organize and play without any adult supervision. Kids make the rules, adjust the rules, pick their own teams, swap players in the middle of games, and it somehow usually works out without turning into a “Bad News Bears” version of “Lord of the Flies.” Creativity is natural in this environment.

I’m certain Gray is right. You just don’t see kids heading off on their own to the local parks with bats, gloves and balls the way you might have in decades past. Gray includes informal sports under the larger umbrella of “free, self-directed outdoor play,” which he and many others believe is vanishing to the detriment of children.

Gray laments the decline in informal sports and notes that it, along with other forms of “free, self-directed outdoor play,” are contributing to an increase in childhood obesity and depression. I recently spoke with Gray and he indicated that while digital distractions, like video games, may be a contributing factor to this decline, they also might be more of a consequence. Gray said that part of the allure of video games for young people is that it allows them to interact within an environment that doesn’t have adult supervision. In essence, the video game world becomes a sandlot. Formal team sports, like youth soccer or baseball, are highly structured affairs. There are adult coaches, adult referees and parents are always on the sidelines.

The biggest culprit in the decline of informal youth sports may be the trend toward “helicopter parenting,” which much like the extra innings of a youth baseball game or a penalty kick shoot-out at an elite youth soccer tournament, features hovering adults laser-focused on the kid-players.

In recent decades, we’ve built America into a scary place where the consensus seems to be that kids shouldn’t roam unsupervised. Even if a parent rejects that notion and would be okay with the concept of giving kids some “free range” time, there are other specters to fear.

Around one corner, parents see Pennywise the Clown. Around another corner, parents see Child Protective Services.

What can parents and schools do to encourage participation in informal sports?

We might not be able to go back to earlier decades, where sandlot baseball and the “be home before dark” mentality, was a foundational part of childhood. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to encourage informal sports.

Gray, along with “Free Range Kids” author Lenore Skenazy and several others, are co-founders of an organization called Let Grow.

One of the goals of Let Grow is to help schools find ways to encourage free play, including informal sports. Gray said that one of the ways schools can do this is to open up a gymnasium or playing fields for a period of time after school, with a range of team sports equipment available.

The adult supervisors are only there to intervene as a last resort to ensure kids are safe. Their role is to simply step back and let them play.

It’s a very similar concept to the adventure playgrounds now being seen in some parts of the country.

How does this all relate to formal team sports?

Informal sports teach things that formal sports cannot, according to Gray. These include how to make and modify rules; consensus building; and the true spirit of fair play. They also foster creativity.

But it just might be that encouraging informal team sports could lead to more kids participating in various levels of formal team sports. If we refocus on the need to keep youth sports fun, players will be free to hone their creativity. When kids are creative, the possibilities are endless.

Even winning a World Cup isn’t out of the question. Let them play.

Jake Palmateer is a public information specialist for Capital Region BOCES. He is a father of two. Their adventures include camping, hiking, metal detecting, painting, stargazing, reading, fishing, soccer, mowing the lawn and baking cupcakes.

Tags: , , ,