It wasn’t until he found himself standing on the sidelines watching his 5-year-old daughter’s soccer game that John O’Sullivan, a former college and professional soccer player, says he realized why kids were dropping out of organized sports at such an alarming rate. As he watched the pack of little girls (team name: The Unicorns) running happily up and down the field — cheered on by parents and coaches — he noticed a much more intense scene unfolding over at the 10-year-old boys game on the next field.
“It should be just the same, right?” O’Sullivan asks in his 2014 Tedx Talk, “Changing the Game in Youth Sports,” of the two soccer games. “But it was completely different.”
Instead of the boys being cheered on by parents and coaches, a young player was berated and “yanked out of the game” for a bad pass that allowed the other team to score. O’Sullivan — a former Division 1 college men’s soccer coach — watched as the boy’s coach, his father and then the parent of another player took turns “screaming” at the young boy.
In fact, of the 40 million or so kids who participate in organized sports each year in the U.S., 70 percent will drop out by the time they turn 13, according to the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS). Why the mass exodus of pre-teens? “It’s just not fun anymore,” reported many of the kids who quit.
But having fun is why kids start playing sports in the first place, according to a Michigan State University survey of 30,000 children. When asked why they played sports, researchers found that the number one reason cited was because it was fun. “They like to learn. They like to be with their friends. They enjoy the excitement, but they don’t play because of winning,” says O’Sullivan, whose organization, Changing the Game Project, is dedicated to returning youth sports to kids and putting the “play” back in “play ball.” “It’s not why they show up,” he adds.
The result is that our children are missing out on all the good stuff that inherently comes from running around playing a game with friends, at a time in their lives when they could really use some of those skills.
“Playing sports offers everything from physical activity, experiencing success and bouncing back from failure to taking calculated risks and dealing with the consequences to working as a team and getting away from the ubiquitous presence of screens” writes Julianna W. Miner, mom of three who teaches public health at George Mason University, in the The Washington Post. “Our middle-schoolers need sports now more than ever.”
The Great Race
Instead of celebrating youth sports as an opportunity to have fun and learn something about being part of a team and the value of good sportsmanship, the emphasis is now on being the best, regardless of the cost.
“Everything is focused on X’s and O’s, not the culture of sportsmanship,” notes Garland Allen, President of Personal Best Media, a not for profit providing evidence-based research and education focused on the epidemic of bullying, hazing and harassment in youth sports. Allen, a former teacher, coach, and director of athletics for Greenwich High School (CT) and Ridgewood High School (NJ), knows — first-hand — how misdirected adults have become about youth and sports, “It’s exactly the opposite of what we say we’re trying to accomplish,” he says, speaking about the current zero-sum-game attitude that’s pervasive in youth sports culture.
O’Sullivan calls this pressure put on kids by coaches and parents to perform at such high levels — at younger and younger ages — “the great race to nowhere in youth sports.” He says there’s too much emphasis put on the few young athletes who go on to get scholarships or play professional sports without taking into account the vast majority who “end up hating sports and in damaged relationships with their moms and dads.”
“And some kids end up with the physical and emotional scars that last a lifetime,” he adds.
Ow, that hurts
Kids are also hanging up their cleats before high school because there’s such a high incidence of injuries due to overuse. More than 3.5 million children a year under the age 14 need treatment for sports injuries, with nearly half of all sports injuries for middle and high school students caused by overuse, according to CNN.
Growing bones, uneven maturation and an inability to detect warning signs make children and teens particularly susceptible to overuse injuries, according to a report by UC Davis Health. Data suggests that athletes who had early specialized training withdrew from their sport either due to injury or burnout from the sport.
“A deep commitment to training for a single sport comes with a price,” says Wayne McDonnell, Academic Chair at the NYU School of Professional Studies, citing torn and pulled ligaments and stress fractures as common results of overuse. “Young athletes are more familiar with MRIs than they are with geometry.”
Bullying is a year-round activity
Kids are also dropping out of sports before high school because of instances of bullying or hazing by coaches and teammates. According to NAYS, one in seven children in grades K-12 is a victim of bullying, or is a bully themselves. “That means on a youth football team of 25 players, chances are pretty good that bullying is affecting the childhood of three players on just one team alone.”
Like most sports these days, bullying is year-round, cropping up not only on rec teams during the school year, but rearing its head during summer sports camp season as well. Kids are usually signed up for these programs to maintain skills during an off season from school or by parents who just want to get them outside and be active. But kids shouldn’t have to add bullying to the list of hazards to avoid, like the hot sun or dehydration, during the heat of summer.
“Bullies choose victims they perceive as vulnerable or lacking status,” explains Allen. “Younger athletes are particularly vulnerable for being bullied by older team members.”
Hazing, he says, can look a lot like bullying but it’s not repetitive. Older team members use humiliation and embarrassment to initiate new team members and hazing often occurs at the beginning of the season. “Unfortunately, many players and coaches mistakenly think that hazing will build a sense of team,” says Garland. “In reality, hazing undermines the very essence of team building.”
Empowering young athletes
So, what are we supposed to do about this mass exodus from youth sports? How do we help kids put the fun back into organized sports?
“We have to change the game in youth sports,” says O’Sullivan, who suggests that instead of parents critiquing their kids’ performance after a game, they instead say five simple words: “I love watching you play.” ‘We have to give it back to our kids by fulfilling their needs and their priorities — not ours.”
Miner, who writes the award-winning humor blog Rants from Mommyland, says, “Until we dismantle the parenting culture that emphasizes achievement and success over healthy, happy kids, we don’t stand a chance of solving this problem.
One of the biggest factors helping to perpetuate bullying in youth sports is silence. According to the Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center, 64 percent of children who are being bullied do not report the abuse. But there is a simple and powerful tool to help kids speak out and report incidents of bullying and harassment on the playing field or in the locker room.
STOPit is an app young athletes can download that empowers them to report incidents easily and anonymously. Not only can they alert coaches or camp directors about incidents with the quick tapclick of a button, the app also allows kids to include any videos or photos as supporting evidence.
Derek Green, who’s the counselor and head basketball coach for the Maury County Schools in Tennessee, says STOPit was critical for enabling a young athlete to anonymously report a teammate who had “made a bad decision in the locker room.” The STOPit app allowed the witness — who did not want to be perceived as a “tattletale” — to anonymously report the fight that had taken place and share a video of the incident, which went straight to the head coach. “They tried to play it off that it didn’t happen,” Green says, “but then we had the proof.”
While there were consequences for the player in the fight, he adds, the teammate who reported him through STOPit remained anonymous.
Putting the ‘play’ back into ‘play ball’
We want kids to play sports not only to reap all the benefits that come from physical activity and being a part of a team, but also for the sheer joy of playing a game.
By empowering more student athletes to eliminate so many of the negatives that pervade youth sports today — pressure from coaches and parents, chronic injuries from overuse, the push to focus on just one sport year-round, and the bullying and hazing culture on rec and summer sports teams — we help them remember how fun sports can be.
Instead of giving them reasons to drop out, we need to find ways to help them to stay.
If you would like more information about how STOPit can benefit your school or athletic organization, contact us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 855-999-0932.