In ruining youth sports, the adults have won

Seventy percent of kids stop playing team sports by the time they turn 13. They’re not good enough to play on the elite teams that have taken over the focus of parents and adults, the Washington Post reports today.

“The adults have won,” Mark Hyman, a professor of sports management at George Washington University, tells the paper. “If we wiped the slate clean and reinvented youth sports from scratch by putting the physical and emotional needs of kids first, how different would it look? Nothing would be recognizable.”

The suburb and its mindset come in for particular criticism.

In the past two decades, sports has become an investment to many parents, one that they believe could lead to a college scholarship, even though the odds are bleak. Parents now start their kids in sports as toddlers, jockey to get them on elite travel teams, and spend small fortunes on private coaching, expensive equipment, swag and travel to tournaments.

Youth sports is the new keeping up with the Joneses.

“The parents try to one-up each other,” said Tony Korson, founder of Koa Sports, a nonprofit sports league in Montgomery County that tries to provide an alternative to the youth sports status quo, with trained coaches and encouragement of multiple sports. “You get one parent who says, ‘I traveled to Tennessee for a tournament.’ Another says, ‘Well I flew to California.’ And then, ‘Oh my son is going to Puerto Rico.’ ”

Nobody ever asked the kids what they want from youth sports, the Post says. That’s changing, and the answers are surprising.

A researcher asked 150 kids to list things that they found fun about organized sports. They came up with 81 items. Winning was #48.

Also low on the list: playing in tournaments, cool uniforms and expensive equipment. High on the list: positive team dynamics, trying hard, positive coaching and learning. Whenever Visek presents her findings to win-hungry parents and coaches, there is a lot of pushback.

“They don’t want to believe it,” she said.

Yet the No. 1 reason why kids quit sports is that it’s no longer fun.

The Aspen Institute has made eight recommendations to save youth sports. They include revitalizing in-town leagues, reintroducing free play, encouraging sports sampling, training coaches and asking kids what they want.