Is Youth Development Still at the Heart of Youth Sports?

An op-ed by Natalie Hummel, Co-Founder & Executive Director, Every Kid Sports

As a society, we often hear about the importance of youth sports and the role they play in helping children develop important life skills. In recent years, the focus has shifted away from youth development and towards a singular focus on creating the next professional athlete. While there is nothing wrong with encouraging children to pursue their dreams and become elite athletes, we must not lose sight of the life-altering developmental opportunities available to kids through sports.

One of the most significant benefits of youth sports is that they provide a fun environment for children to learn and practice prosocial behaviors such as teamwork and communication, strengthen their responsibility and commitment muscles, and hone their emotional leadership amidst the diverse experiences of sports. These skills are essential for success in all areas of life, whether it be in the classroom, the workplace, or personal relationships. Participation in youth sports helps teach kids life skills that level the playing field of life.

Unfortunately, the current culture surrounding youth sports often prioritizes winning at all costs and producing the next star athlete. You can see this with the competitive sports model that dominates youth sports today; it’s big business that’s negatively impacting little kids. One of the main issues with these programs is that it is becoming increasingly expensive to participate in youth sports and this has a cost: it eliminates, at a staggering percentage, the number of kids from income-restricted families that are getting the chance to play. Even parents with financial resources are being pressured to invest large amounts of money and time. Youth sports have become a game of the haves and have-nots.

First and foremost, we must create a more inclusive and supportive environment for all children, regardless of their skill level or athletic potential.

As well, kids who just want to play for fun are left with no programming and miss out on all the benefits that come from playing. Girls are also being disproportionately affected by the shift towards competitive sports programs. Studies show that girls are less likely to participate in competitive sports than boys, and this disparity is even greater for low-income girls. This means that many girls are missing out altogether on the numerous benefits of playing sports.

So what can be done to shift the focus back to the broader goals of youth sports? First and foremost, we must create a more inclusive and supportive environment for all children, regardless of their skill level or athletic potential. Youth sports should be a place where children can learn, grow, and have fun; without the fear of judgment or failure. We need to return to a recreational youth sports model, where the focus is on youth development, inclusion, and fun.

Recreational youth sports programs provide a fun and low-pressure environment for kids to learn new skills, make friends, and develop a healthy identity of well-being and activity. However, as more and more emphasis is placed on becoming an elite athlete, these programs are becoming less common, and children who would enjoy these activities are being left out.

I am the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Every Kid Sports, a non-profit that provides direct-to-parent funding to help income-restricted families register their kids for recreational sports. My biggest concern is what will happen to our youth if recreational youth sports continue to be replaced by expensive elite programs. We are already seeing sports deserts – areas of the country with no sports programming available for kids.

In conclusion, the shift towards high-priced, competitive year-round youth sports programs is driving kids out of sports who could really benefit, including girls, kids that play for the fun of it, and those from low-income families. It’s important for parents, coaches, and policymakers to recognize the value of recreational sports and work to make them more accessible for all kids.

By doing so, we can help ensure that every kid can experience the many benefits of sports participation. I also encourage parents to get curious about whether the highly competitive youth sports programs you have your kids in are truly serving them and allowing them to learn all the valuable life lessons that come from participating in sports. June is Youth Sports Equity Month and we all need to consider what it will take to make access to youth sports more equitable.

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