“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” – Chinese Proverb
The Aspen Institute recently released an article on why we need to fix youth sports, 7 Charts that Show Why We Need to Fix Youth Sports. On September 6th, the organization hosted their Project Play 2020 Summit, with a focus on getting “kids off the couch without running them into the ground.” As the title of their article describes, they present 7 charts that paint a picture of the decline in sport participation. As usual, The Aspen Institute does a fantastic job in presenting the issues, making it quite clear that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. However, there are still NO solutions being presented. Over the past several years, we have all been presented with statistics on youth participation in sports. Most of them depict a picture of constant decline; yet none of them present clear solutions. With the companies that make up the founding members of Project Play 2020 (like Nike, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and Target), one would think they have come up with LONG-TERM solutions for this issue. And one would have hoped that they would have presented these solutions with the doom and gloom statistics. At the end of the article linked above, they do list a few initiatives; but there are no specifics. How are you going to train coaches? What does “Encourage Sport Sampling” mean? And what are the other 6 strategies? Why not share them?
What I hope Project Play 2020 does not do is provide one-time goodwill gestures. Their solutions should be long-term, with a persistent focus on turning the ship. A one-time camp, or instructional clinic for coaches won’t cut it. But, far too often, we see these annual instructional camps as a solution. And a newspaper article, or a spot on the evening news touts these camps as a way to solve the problem. A mom or dad that is volunteering to coach cannot grasp the game in a few hours or one weekend. There has to be a presence. Install a “lead Instructor” in an area for a year and use them as a resource for the volunteer coaches. Mandate attendance to weekly camps. Volunteers should also shadow these lead instructors as the instructors work directly with kids. It’s easy for someone to tell others what to do. But what makes more of an impact is to see the instructors teach the kids directly in an environment that they will be in when they teach the kids. Volunteers need to see how it should be done.
We can train coaches, provide more leagues and build more sports complexes; but it all comes down to parents. Parents need to be held accountable for kids being less active. The Aspen Institute provides Parent Checklists that are designed to help parents try to build an athlete for life. With all due respect to what the Aspen Institute is trying to do and the information they provide…really…a checklist? Parents should not need a checklist to help them understand what they should be doing. Turn the TV off, open the door, and get outside! If kids aren’t active, it’s the parents fault. I have no problem saying that because it’s true. We give our kids, whether intentional or not, too many opportunities to not play. If our kids see us watching TV all day, what do you think they will do? If our kids see us playing video games, what do you think they will want to do? Go for a walk and bring your kid. They don’t want to go? So what? You’re their parent. MAKE THEM GO! Yes, they will fuss for a bit but in the end, they will enjoy it.
The last piece I’d like to address is MONEY. When I was young, I read a biography on Ted Williams. He used to walk to the local park and toss acorns in the air and hit them. How much do acorns cost? Last I checked, they were free. Playing sports can be very inexpensive, and we need to do a better job of showing people that it doesn’t take much money to play. I pass by fields all the time that are being unused. Basketball courts are vacant. You don’t need to spend $120/hour to rent space at a state-of-the-art facility to improve your skills. You need a desire to get better. That’s it. We’ve become spoiled and have forgotten to keep things simple. Want to improve your swing? Go buy a whiffle ball and bat at a gas station for $2. Want to get quicker? Buy sidewalk chalk at the dollar store and draw an agility ladder on the sidewalk. Want to get better at catching fly balls? Have mom or dad get you a tennis ball and throw you pop ups. One of the initiatives I’d like to see from Project Play is to help the low-income households understand what they can do with what they have. Don’t have a ball, roll up a pair of socks. There’s no use in building facilities if they don’t know what to do there. They’ll collect dust. There’s no use in providing them with high end equipment. When time takes its toll on the equipment, will someone be there to replace it? Keep things simple and “teach them how to fish.”
It’s sad to see ballfields going unused after school and on weekends. Kids should be running around and playing. We don’t need all kids to be playing organized sports. Just get them active. And it’s not that difficult. Let’s stop with all the surveys. We get the point. Now it’s time for action.