Can We Improve Youth Sports? Part 2 – A Brief History

Last week in Part 1, I briefly commented on how our current youth sports structure is actually feeding into our growing problem with anxiety and depression in our kids.  Today, in Part 2, I want to pass along some research that helps to answer one of the more common questions I get from frustrated parents of young participants:

How did youth sports get to where it is today?

From the parents that talk to me about this, the overwhelming question seems to be uncertainty about how we transitioned from the culture we had as kids to the culture we now have with our own kids.  While I don’t believe I can fully answer that question, I have read some research that may, in part, help to explain what happened.  (**It’s important to note that most of the information in this post is research that I’ve done for various projects, not my own opinions or assumptions.  Since you probably don’t want to read a research paper, I’m not going to cite anything.  That said, I’ll be more than happy to share the source(s) I used for any information you find interesting – just ask.)

The waterfall of events that led us to today’s structure began in the 80s – although few, if any, knew or understood the impact of the changes that were occurring.  Here we go…*deep breath*:

– From 1981-1993 we had presidents who preached against strong government control and for personal responsibility and accountability.  Those ideals led to, in part, a stripping down of community funded programs in parks and recreation.  In order to fill the need for those lost youth activities, various private clubs popped up to again simply provide sporting opportunities for kids.  At that time, it wasn’t anything more than someone new running the same old activities, so not much had visibly changed.  Until
– The Soviet Union and East Germany finished 1&2 at the 1976 and 1988 Olympic Games (the US (1980) and Soviet/East Germany (1984) boycotts skewed the medal counts in those two Games, but it’s widely assumed that the US would have finished 3rd in both of those years, too, had all three countries competed).  Much of the success of the Russians and Germans was credited to their early identification of “elite” athletes and their commitment to 24/7/365 training for those elite athletes.  [Of course, the number of “elite” athletes who engaged in 24/7/365 training but never made the top levels of competition was not widely glamorized.]  The belief in the US was that we had to match that training regime in order to compete with them in world competition.  [Side note – I actually read once that the 1984 women’s volleyball team was given a total of 6 days off in a 5-year stretch!]  So the top training academies in the US changed their models to start more aggressive specialization at an earlier age.  The US finished 2nd to the former Soviet Union in 1992 then finally led the medal count in 1996, which validated the new training regiment in the minds of the US Olympic committee.  In response, that model, of course, trickled down to other national groups, then to state groups, and eventually to local groups.  Which meant that…
– By the late 90s, the privately run clubs in communities had people dedicated to these clubs for the purpose of year-round training, so there became the need for employees.  The only way to make sure employees were paid was to charge the participants, so registration fees for these youth sports started to increase.  In addition to those increases, the private clubs had to recruit families to join them (and stay with them), so external pressure to specialize became the norm.  These clubs tried to convince parents that they were necessary for kids to improve, make a high school team, get a college scholarship, become great, etc. etc.  Normally, those increased fees to play organized sports would have scared parents/families away since kids could always go outside and play with their friends for free, except that…
– Throughout the 80s and 90s, increased media coverage and availability meant that more news from more sources was seen by more people much more easily than any other time in history.  Because of the increased competition, news outlets had to work harder to grab the consumers’ attention, which meant putting the scariest stories first, big, and bold in newspapers, newscasts, etc.  That means that every parent in America felt personally tied to stories like JonBenet Ramsey, Polly Klaas, baby Jessica in the well, Columbine, etc.  In addition, because blind trust in a news story was still prevalent, every parent was certain that all of the Halloween candy had razor blades in it, every kid would eventually join a cult, etc. etc.  Every horrible tragedy involving a child was at the top of the news on a constant basis, so parents slowly transitioned to where we are today: needing to know where our kids are and what they are doing every second of the day.  Whereas our summer days as kids which consisted of leaving the house at 9:00 am and coming home at some point that night, our kids instead have baseball practice from 9-10, swimming lessons from 10:30-11:30, lunch at 12, music lessons or an academic camp or an organized play date from 1-3, soccer practice from 3-4, etc.  And that has happened while…
– The social media explosion has made it easy for every parent to compare themselves and their kids to every other parent and kid.  Parents use Facebook/Twitter/Instagram to share pictures and stories from every kid’s activities.  Think about how often you open your Facebook page and instantly scroll past multiple brag (or humble brag) posts from your Facebook friends about their kids.  Because it’s human nature to want bigger and better things for your own kids, we turn those F/T/I posts into our own little competition, and suddenly the amount of stuff we do/buy for our kids becomes our own validation of the moral worth of our parenting.  So, to prove that we’re awesome parents, we put our kids into every club, every league, and every travel team while buying them matching team sweats, sport-specific cleats/gloves, the best equipment, etc.  The assumption is that if I can post a picture of my kid wearing Nike cleats and Oakley sunglasses while holding a first place trophy from an All-Star tournament 250 miles from home, I’m proving that I’m a better parent than the family next door whose kid just plays baseball with his friends at the park across the street.  Maybe even worse than that, the parent whose kid is “just” going across the street won’t openly talk about that out of fear of being judged as a bad parent who isn’t doing everything possible to advance the kid as much as possible.  And that’s a real fear, because…
Our current society WAY overvalues athletes, especially compared to past generations.  It’s easy to run a quick Google search to learn tidbits such as how Willie Mays used to be a car salesman in the offseason to make ends meet, but I’ll give you some easy to understand figures, instead.
– In 1975, the average MLB salary was $44,676.
– In 1975-76, the average public school teacher’s salary was $12,600…28% of a professional baseball player’s salary is understandable considering the skill set compared to population, demand for entertainment, etc.

– In 2017, the average MLB salary was $4,470,000.
– In 2017-18, the average public school teacher’s salary was $55,072… 1.2% of a professional baseball player’s salary.

Or, to highlight simply the growth of sports itself:
– Those who know me know that I’m a huge Cubs fan.  As such, I’m a huge Ryne Sandberg fan.  Ryne’s biggest salary ever was in 1994 when he was the 2nd highest paid player in MLB, making $5.975M (roughly $9.5M in today’s money).
– In 2017, there were 140 players in MLB making $9M or more.
– To make that more Grand Forks specific, the highest paid NHL player in 1994 (Eric Lindros) made $3.35M (roughly $5.5M in today’s money).
– In 2017, there were 179 NHL players making $5M or more.

Couple that with the creation of ESPN in 1979, a huge Supreme Court case eliminating TV monopolies for sports in 1984, the creation of ESPN2 in 1993, then the absolute explosion of dedicated sports TV outlets after that, and it’s easy to see how every kid desires to be a professional athlete…………..and how so many parents would love to see their kids become a professional athlete.

So, put that all together:
1.  Remove youth sports from the hands of people trained in educational/character based sports and put it into the hands of private groups/individuals who eventually realize how much money can be made in youth sports.
2.  Change the global focus from sports participation for character to sports participation for excellence.
3.  Recognize that specialization is helpful in order to become part of the tiny percentage of people who become elite athletes.
4.  Dramatize and promote how dangerous the world is for unattended kids.
5.  Pit parents against each other by creating a new world of competitive parenting via social media.
6.  Overvalue and overpromote elite athletes in today’s world.

And here we are.

Next week, I have some suggestions as to how we can bridge the gap between yesteryear’s youth sports structure and today’s while addressing some of the concerns of parents today.  Until then, as always, comments are welcomed and encouraged!

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