Chris Branscome is adamant. The biggest reason kids have stopped playing youth soccer in our region is that it just isn’t fun. Imagine that, the chance to go outside and run around, hang with friends, kick a ball in the fresh air and perhaps develop a lifelong desire to remain fit doesn’t bring enjoyment anymore. “In almost every survey that’s done, the lead reference just about every time is that it’s not fun,” says Branscome, CEO of Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer. “Kids say they don’t like the yelling they hear or the pressure they get from parents and even coaches.”
Branscome notes that there are about 122,000 children participating in youth soccer programs in the eastern half of the state, down from 130,000 a decade ago and 150,000 some 15-20 years prior to that. The national numbers on sports participation aren’t any more encouraging. A 2019 survey conducted by Utah State University and the Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C., revealed that kids play only three years of sports, on average. Many quit by age 11. In 2018, only 38 percent of kids ages 6-12 played team sports on a regular basis, down from 45 percent 10 years earlier.
Football participation rates have been dropping for years, due to the fear of concussions and long-term brain injury. That has helped spawn a growth in baseball and softball play, which saw numbers increase by three million from 2013 to 2018. Basketball involvement is pretty much holding steady.
While the fun factor is a main culprit behind the overall drop, there are other reasons. One is that kids have more options—“action sports” like skateboarding and rock climbing, not to mention videogames, content streams, social media and other technology. There are also problems with the structure of some youth sports organizations, which professionalize the athletes by culling the best players from the herd and shipping them all over the region (and sometimes the country) in search of top competitive options. That leaves others with limited opportunities and can sap enthusiasm for the process.
And then there’s the cost. The Aspen Institute reports that sports participation in poorer households is trending down. In 2017, only 34 percent of children from homes with incomes below $25,000 played sports. That’s a byproduct of multiple things, including expensive equipment and registration fees (to say nothing of elite training and travel). “Cost is a huge problem,” says Lisa Delpy Neirotti, a professor of Sports Management at the George Washington University School of Business in Washington, D.C. “Sports like lacrosse are very expensive. You also have teams and camps that get money from equipment sponsors in exchange for parents buying uniforms.”
The long-term impact of children avoiding athletics is easier to define. It’s difficult to develop a life-long commitment to physical activity without a good foundation in the early years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the national childhood obesity rate is 18.5 percent, almost one in five kids. The overall obesity number—almost 40 percent—is more dramatic, and it’s creating a significant burden on the healthcare industry. There’s no denying that our nation has become more sedentary.
There’s also the social aspect of athletics, which helps in developing friendships, learning the value of sportsmanship, understanding teamwork and overcoming obstacles. That’s hard to do when there are barriers to entry, combined with a philosophy that stresses winning over everything else. “All the studies show that kids, by and large, want to play with their friends and be part of a community,” says Branscome. “Our players are technically better, but they aren’t necessarily having as much fun.”
Neirotti’s son was pretty good at soccer, playing up two grades when he was younger. But his coach brought a negative outlook to practices and games, and the young player began to lose his affection for the sport. By the time he was in high school, he’d quit the game and moved to football. “The coach completely destroyed his confidence and love of soccer,” she says.
Branscome has undertaken several initiatives to help make the adults who direct teams more willing to make the experience enjoyable. “We have a lot of coaches who’ve played the sport,” he says. “We don’t have enough properly trained coaches.”
Thanks in part to a grant from U.S. Soccer, Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer has expanded coaching classes and training. Also included are lessons in how to run a club, from dealing with parents to creating training and competition schedules that don’t burn out players or overstress family budgets. The organization is also trying to standardize tryouts for clubs. Many have been renting indoor facilities during the winter months and holding auditions—the better to keep rivals from getting some of the better players on their sides. In central Pennsylvania, eight clubs signed an agreement to hold their tryouts around the same time. This keeps kids from being told they won’t make a fall team before their spring season even begins, preventing them from jumping from team to team or missing out on playing with friends. “We’re putting 11, 12 and 13 year olds in the position of college recruits,” says Branscome. “Some clubs are offering kids spots on their teams and giving them 24 hours to accept.”
As for the aforementioned issue of cost, some travel baseball outfits expect players’ families to spend up to $10,000 a year to cover travel and tournaments. And there are many other barriers in poorer areas, including fewer facilities, equipment shortages, a lack of coaches, and safety and infrastructure issues. The Philadelphia Youth Sports Collaborative is working to create protocols that allow for neighborhood teams and leagues to spawn activity that leads to social and physical growth. “Sports are uniquely designed to support that development,” says PYSC executive director Beth Devine.
Especially when approached with the right attitudes and goals.