Kobe Bryant spent most of his youth playing basketball and then had a 20-year career in the NBA. The kids watching him? They have a whole different set of pressures on them, he says.
“We’re in an environment where everything is extremely structured for children,” Bryant said in an interview with ESPN’s Cari Champion. “Sports used to be something that kids go out and do for fun. But now, it’s become so regimented, where parents are starting to inject their own experiences, or past failures if you will, onto their children. And it just takes the fun out of it.”
Due to financial pressures, bad coaches and just plain lack of fun, the average child today spends less than three years playing a sport and quits by age 11. That’s just one of the findings of a new survey of sports parents conducted by Utah State University for the Aspen Institute. ESPN is a partner with the institute to shed light on issues facing youth sports and will take part in the “Don’t Retire, Kid” campaign that launches Aug. 4.
“[Sports] teaches you a lot of valuable lessons,” Bryant said. “Being fit. Aside from the mental health benefits that you get from playing sports, there is also an emotional component, too.”
Despite the stereotype of a sports parent pushing their kids to play to get a scholarship, the survey found that most parents — and their kids — want sports to be fun. But there are many reasons why youth sports lose their appeal. Chief among them is the influence of coaches.
The survey found that the main reason children experience unwanted stress and pressure is from coaches. The Aspen Institute’s 2018 State of Play report also pointed a finger at coaches for kids quitting sports, concluding that a lack of training is the root of the problem. Kids who play for trained coaches dropped out at a much lesser rate.
Coaches need to “teach and listen,” Bryant said. “It’s not about us as coaches, and it’s not about us winning or losing this game. It has nothing to do with this game. At this stage, it is really about helping these individual children, these kids, get better. How do you get them to become better people, and better athletes? It’s not about you and winning the game. If you can remove yourself from that equation, and just focus on teaching, then I think the kids’ experience will be much better.”
Coaches aren’t the only problem, however. Cost is a huge stumbling block to participation, the survey found. Families from higher income brackets are willing to spend large sums of money on their kids’ sports. The average cost of ice hockey — the most expensive sport — was $2,583 per year. But parents whose kids had already quit sports or were forced to stop playing weren’t even included in the survey. Since the average household income of the parents surveyed was $90,908 — well above the national average of $59,039 — it’s logical to conclude that children of lower-income families have led the exodus from sports.
Whereas community sports programs dominated the scene even a decade ago, travel sports have now taken over. And travel is another expensive impediment to participation. In fact, on average, parents are spending more on actual travel ($196, per sport per child) than equipment ($144), according to the survey.
Equipment, entry fees, travel … it all adds up to a $17 billion business. Despite that, the Aspen Institute points out that only 38% of kids play a team sport on a regular basis in 2018, down from 45% in 2008.
According to the Utah State survey, 15% of kids who quit one sport are just jumping to another, and that’s a good thing. Multisport participation has been championed by many groups, including USA Hockey. But more kids — 36% — are just quitting altogether, turning to other options, like the couch and video games.
“We need to figure out why they discontinue, not just that they do,” said Dr. Travis Dorsch, the Utah State professor whose Families in Sport Lab designed the survey. “For kids, two years in a sport may seem like forever, while we as adults think they should continue for much longer. We need to frame it through the interpretive lens of adolescence.”
For parents who see the benefits of sport in their children’s lives and for a society worried about issues like childhood obesity, figuring out how to keep kids active in sports has become the big challenge. Not every kid will be Kobe Bryant, but their only exposure to sports doesn’t just have to be watching players like him on TV.
“Sports is the greatest metaphor we have for life,” Bryant said, “teaching you things like how to deal with anxiety, how to deal with communicating with each other, leadership, performing under pressure. All those are valuable lessons.”
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