Keeping the Games Fun

With all of the negatives associated with organized youth sports participation, it’s still better than the alternative. But don’t take my word for it.

Countless research studies show that signing up your kids for recreational leagues or letting them try out for travel teams outweigh the potential adult-initiated unpleasantness. Unfortunately, that unpleasantness often leads to kids refusing to play through to adulthood.

According to a 2013 study by Donna L. Merkel published by Dove Medical Press Ltd., found at, children who play organized sports are more likely to have more confidence, do better in school, be healthier, are less likely to be overweight and be less prone to psychological problems.

There is also a better chance that both boys and girls who play on a team will not engage in risky behavior, such as use of drugs or alcohol, the study said.

The good news, Merkel found, is that three-quarters of American families with school-aged children have at least one child participating in organized sports. The bad news is that, when the kids get old enough to decide for themselves whether or not they’d like to continue to play, most are opting out. By the time they turn 15, the report said, 70 to 80 percent have called it quits.

That wouldn’t be a problem if kids still played choose-up games in the neighborhood, such as handball, touch football, and two-base slap ball. Instead of enjoying those staples of past generations, 8-18-year-olds are spending an average of 7.5 hours per day watching TV or using their computers, iPads, or smartphones.

And kids won’t necessarily get the required amount of physical exercise in school. Although most states require children to take physical education classes in grades K-12, the study found that only 12 percent of states mandate how much time must be spend on phys ed.
That’s why we’re left with organized sports as the best alternative.

The difficulty with keeping the kids on the field is that often parents and their children have different reasons for playing on teams, the study showed. Kids play to have fun, while parents want to see their children excel and win. And when youngsters don’t meet their parents’ expectations of being stars and bringing home championship trophies, or taking the games as seriously as the adults would like — “Focus, Johnny!” — the children may actually lose confidence and fail to get the enjoyment they are seeking.

Overestimating your child’s ability level and forcing them to face competition they might not be prepared for is another mistake parents make, the report said, and can lead to “anxiety, stress, and ultimately” the desire to stop participating. You know — like they dad or mom starts a travel team for their son or daughter, even though the child is more suited for recreational play.

Another reason kids quit, the study found, is specialization. Kids are being asked at earlier ages these days to pick a sport, and play and practice at it year round. The days of the three-sport high school athlete are disappearing as the pressure to play in travel programs that keep them going all year at the expense of experiencing other sports is what many parents think will help their children become stars.

In reality, only 2 percent of kids who play a sport will grow up to become elite athletes. Instead, according to the report, specialization is mostly leading to an increased “risk of sport-related injuries, peer isolation, burnout (and) psychosocial problems,” which often lead to the desire to quit playing, period.

Coaches, often well-meaning but misguided, must share the blame. Coaches who tend to play only their best players, run physically demanding practices, who let the score get out of hand or who overemphasize winning contribute “to a negative atmosphere in youth sports,” Merkel writes.
The bottom line, this and other reports find, is that kids should be playing organized sports for their physical and emotional health. And when it stops being fun, they often stop getting the exercise and socialization time children badly need.

Joe LoVerde has coached youth sports on Staten Island for more than 40 years. He’s also a longtime newspaper editor and sportswriter.