The competitive youth sports industry has become big business in today’s society with an estimated $7 billion in annual revenue. Players can join competitive clubs; receive year-round coaching; attend speed, agility, and strength training; and travel to regions all over the United States to play games. On paper it sounds like a pretty good deal. Yet, more than 70 percent of all children leave competitive sports before age 13. That’s seven out of 10 kids. The leading cause for children giving up sports: It’s not fun to play anymore. The primary reason for sports not being fun for children: Bad adult behavior.
Why are sports not fun for children anymore and they’re leaving in droves for other activities? Former NBA player Keith Van Horn wrote, “Parents have unrealistic expectations of children’s athletic ability and put unnecessary pressure on them to perform at an unrealistic standard.”
The facts back him up. On average, only 2 percent of all high school athletes receive college sports scholarships. Yet, the Harvard School of Public Health reported that more than 26 percent of parents with children playing high school sports want their child playing professional sports. WHAT? (With ESPN’s Chris Berman emphasis).
Let’s get a reality check. According to USA Today, only 1 in 4,233 athletes end up in the NFL. In basketball, only 1 in 11,771 athletes play in the NBA. For soccer it’s 1 in 5,768. For baseball, one in 659 athletes play professionally.
The exodus from youth sports does not stop with the kids. There is a significant shortage of referees in most sports. Why? According to the Wall Street Journal, referees are fleeing youth sports due to abusive behavior from parents and coaches on the sidelines. The number of coaches leaving youth sports is also on the rise due to bad behavior. In a nutshell, bad behavior by adults on the sidelines of a game played by children is causing those same children, referees, and coaches to leave. Sadly, the situation is only getting worse.
Need a few examples? Since I don’t attend many youth football or baseball games, I’ll focus on just youth basketball and soccer. I won’t write about the parents who make their children run home next to the car if they have a bad practice. I also won’t mention the adults who undermine volunteer coaches at every opportunity, relishing in the turmoil they cause. I also won’t describe the adults who curse the referees at every opportunity, whether or not the adult knows the rules of the game. However, I will mention some of the dysfunctional behaviors I have observed at local youth sporting events over the past several months. Mind you, these are local events and the timeline is months, not years.
• A soccer parent upset with the position his son was playing on the field, physically attacks two coaches, threatens the coaches from the other team, and emits a profanity-laced tirade directed at 10- and 11-year-old players, leaving several children in tears. Worse yet: this same parent had been banned from his previous soccer club for physically attacking an assistant coach during a game, eliciting a response from the police.
• During a seventh-grade basketball game, a parent, thinking the game clock was incorrect, leaves the stands, runs to the scorer’s table and goes ballistic on a volunteer scorekeeper. He doesn’t leave until a coach confronts him and demands he go back into the bleachers. While this spectacle is occurring, another parent is threatening players on the opposing team while also yelling that he’s going to beat up the coach after the game. The same parent “shoulder bumps” the coach after the game in an attempt to start a fight.
• An AAU coach knowingly registers seventh-graders to play in a basketball league against a fifth-grade team. When confronted with the fact that he has seventh-graders on the team, he lies and has his players lie about their grade level. It’s not until a middle school teacher enters the gym and identifies the ineligible players that they are removed from the team. Despite complaints from parents and other coaches, league officials do nothing about it, saying there is no written policy to address cheating. The very next game the coach has new players. Their team goes undefeated and wins the league championship.
• Fast forward a couple of months. Same group, different league. Their team is beating an opponent by 30 points. However, that does not satisfy some of the parents who are cussing at the referee as though he had shot their dog. Worse yet, they make threats against the referee and eventually have to be removed from the gym. They do not go quietly. The same parents have consistently engaged in similar behavior at other games. Their kids have also started yelling at the referees.
• How about when the almost 6-foot tall kid with more facial hair than Nat Borchers (look him up) shows up for a U-13 soccer game and claims he’s 12 years old? The player dominates the game in every way, shape, and form. Although I didn’t see it, there was a high likelihood he drove himself to work in his truck after the game.
• No big deal, right? At the most recent Silver Hoops Three-on-Three basketball tournament in Kellogg, two coaches have their players stand on the sidelines during a game and verbally harass, demean, and use profanity toward boys on another seventh-grade team. The players are then joined by a few adults who continue to degrade the boys, including one adult threatening to commit sexual acts on a boy after the game.
It doesn’t stop there though. An adult male escalates the situation by threatening a coach and the mother of one of the boys. The police are eventually called in to prevent the situation from turning violent. The other coach, who condoned and encouraged this behavior, sits on the sidelines with a big smile on his face while this awful situation unfolds. During an earlier game, a parent of one of the harassing players praised the same coach for the good values he was teaching his son. I never knew that dropping “F” bombs at other kids was a good value. Worse yet, one of the teams doing the harassing wins the tournament and the extravagant prize of cotton T-shirts made in China.
Does that sound like fun for the kids playing the games? I think that anyone with an ounce of common sense would say no.
What’s the common denominator? Bad behavior by adults. However, despite the best efforts of competitive clubs, referees, responsible coaches, and good parents, this bad behavior is destroying youth sports for the majority of children. It doesn’t matter how much revenue is generated each year — big changes need to be made. Those changes need to start and end with prioritizing children, not the “knuckleheads” causing the problems.
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Wade Engelson has coached youth sports at the recreational and competitive level for a number of years. He has also served as the varsity assistant basketball coach at Post Falls High School for the past six years. Prior to that, he served in the United States Marine Corps before embarking on a 20-year career in law enforcement. Wade has a Bachelor’s degree in Business & Economics; a Master’s degree in Public Administration; and a Doctorate in Educational Leadership.