Where Have All the Kids Gone? Ghost Town on Gridiron, Diamond, and Court

Where Have All the Kids Gone? Ghost Town on Gridiron, Diamond, and Court

What’s causing athletic fields once teeming with kids to resemble ghost towns?

A study by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) reports that youth sports lost 11 percent of its casual participants since 2008. Although gymnastics, beach volleyball, and ultimate frisbee added athletes, baseball, football, soccer, and basketball experienced declines. Given their popularity, this necessarily meant that, overall, teams shrank.

“Competition isn’t what it used to be,” laments Paul Mahoney, a Boston youth basketball coach who has mentored boys and girls on the hardwood since 1969. “Kids don’t play in groups outside to learn how to win and lose. It must be organized for them to do it. I live near a park/field/basketball courts. I never see kids out playing on their own. Playing means with an Xbox in your hands.”

Coaches in baseball, basketball, and football contacted by Breitbart Sports pointed to numerous causes for the decline. While no coach offered a single, catch-all explanation for the loss of interest, all cited technology, such as video games and social media, as one reason for the problem each of them has experienced as a very real challenge in their vocations rather than as an abstract statistic.

Mahoney cites too much travel, the growing expense of sports, and the proliferation of single parents with limited time, money, and transportation capabilities as reasons for a decline that appeared evident to him in the inner-city without a study saying so. Basketball, which Mahoney has specialized in coaching for almost a half century, witnessed the greatest percentage drop in athletes among the major sports.

“People want to go in and say ‘look what I can do’ rather than be a part of a team,” theorizes Jeff Tatusko, president of the Greater 28 Youth Football League near Pittsburgh. “They’re missing so much in the way of cooperation and realizing that it does take a team to get a lot further in life. The earlier they learn that, the further they will get in life.” For Tatusko and the other coaches, sports impart valuable life lessons to kids before adult life exacts harsh punishments on those who don’t learn them.

He points to saturation coverage of sports injuries, and programs such as Friday Night Tykes that vilify coaches, as reasons why parents have removed children not just from football, but from non-contact sports, too. “Phobias in general about injuries, any kind of contact, any kind of possibility where kids are going to run into each other and get hurt–youth team sports as a whole are going to take a beating with that,” explains Tatusko, whose football league recently contracted from seven to ten teams at the 13-year-olds level. Removing players from contact sports, Coach Tatusko points out, “may take them to another team sport or it may take them out of team sports altogether.”

The eleven percent decrease in competitors recognized by SFIA doesn’t necessarily mean that eleven percent fewer kids participate in sports. It may mean that kids participate in fewer sports. The sports studied saw an eleven percent decline in participation, which may in part stem from athlete-parent decisions to concentrate on a particular sport rather than play a number of sports. And although the sports that most kids play witness fewer kids playing, hockey, lacrosse, ultimate frisbee, and other less mainstream games have attracted greater numbers.    

Jack Woods, who serves as the athletic director of Fidelity House, a Catholic youth center in Arlington, Massachusetts, reports strong enthusiasm for the basketball programs offered at his gym, but a drop in interest in unstructured “open gym” time. “With 6 baskets at their disposal, dozens of kids could be found at a hoop in the past,” Woods remembers. “Whether they’re shooting around, playing 21 or 2 on 2, 3 on 3, this time was always precious. It seems to be a challenge recently to get kids interested in taking advantage of that open gym time.”

“I think there is a cultural change that is ongoing, and social media/smartphone use is replacing face to face interaction,” Woods believes. “In the past, kids needed to sign up for sports and other extracurricular activities to build relationships and make friends. If your friends played basketball, you wanted to join them. With texting, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, etc, the kids do not need to be present to be involved with what their friends are doing.”

In nearby Waltham, Massachusetts, several of the public high school’s baseball coaches shared their frustrations with what they’re competing against in fielding a competitive nine. “More and more, kids are growing up in a culture where they are not able to go out and play with their friends,” freshman coach Ryan Cox explained. “Activities are planned and supervised and kids spend more time alone or in the house. The opportunities to play sports and learn to love a game have diminished as a result.” Within sports, Cox observes increasing “specialization,” particularly in youth hockey, which he says is “out of control” in the northeast in starting kids at four- and five-years-old on regional traveling teams with demanding schedules.

Particularly among those specializing, sports appear more means than end, with hopes of a scholarship or more ambitious dreams of professional riches governing their eschewal of other sports. “Being both a basketball and baseball coach I would rather have my kids play three sports than specialize in one,” Cox’s colleague, Mike Peterson, opines. “Unfortunately, that’s not how it is nowadays.”

Steven LaForest, who coaches the varsity baseball team, seconds the observations of his assistants but also offers a unique, baseball-specific explanation for his sport’s woes. “Baseball is a sport that a lot of kids describe as boring (a lot of standing around) and for this current generation who are always looking for instant action (video games) they are turned off by the sport that requires a lot of thinking and not a lot of action,” he maintains. “[T]his generation has been brought up with the idea that everyone gets a trophy and everyone wins, so when they don’t get a hit two out of three times they can’t handle the failure that is inherent in baseball but not other sports.”

The SFIA report meshes with statistics on team sports released by other trade groups and sports associations. For instance, USA Football reported a seven percent decline in sandlot participation last season. Over the first decade of the 21st century, baseball lost nearly a quarter of its seven- to seventeen-year-old players, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. Although high school sports have grown annually for nearly a quarter century, the National Federations of State High School Associations reported the first negative year-to-year trend in boys’ sports in two decades last year.

The drawbacks of watching from the stands rather than competing on the field or court may prove more profound than added flab. For youth center athletic director Jack Woods, kids who forgo sports may not understand what they’re missing.

“The sport of basketball has led to more interaction and friendships for me personally than my [high school] years, going away to college, any other work experiences, etc.,” Woods recalls. “When you compete with and against people, bonds are created, friendships or rivalries, and you’ll always have those. A middle schooler isn’t going to realize that playing on a team could lead to lifelong relationships, but as an adult, looking back at that experience will help you realize how important that is.”   


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