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Ten Years After: The State of Youth Sports in 2010

In August 2010 MomsTeam.com celebrated its tenth anniversary.  As we head into 2011, this seems like the appropriate time to look back at where youth sports were 10 years ago, where it is now, and where it is going. Are things getting better, worse, or are they about the same?  Brooke de Lench at Fenway Park hockey game

Ten years after

As an athlete, a parent of triplet sons who were active in youth sports, a soccer coach, the founder of a travel soccer club, and as a mom, I experienced first-hand the problems in youth sports: the politics, the winning-at-all-costs attitude, the misbehaving parents and coaches, the failure of most youth sports organizations to make injury prevention and safety a priority and to provide an opportunity for all kids to continue playing team sports through high school, and to include more women as coaches and administrators.

I started MomsTeam.com ten years ago because I wanted to put what I had learned - for better, and, oftentimes, for worse - to use: to provide youth sports parents, particularly moms, practical advice on what they could to do in their own families and communities to make youth sports safer, saner, less stressful and more inclusive.

My original plan was to write a book, a "Mother's Guide to Youth Sports." But then I realized the best way to reach the largest number of sports parents, and to keep the information current, was to start a website, MomsTeam.com.

When I started MomsTeam 10 years ago, many of the problems I saw in youth sports (concussions, dehydration, overuse injuries, the trend to early specialization and year-round-play, sudden cardiac death from ill-timed blows to the chest and lack of AEDs, contagious bacterial skin infections such as MRSA, and abuse of youth athletes in its myriad forms (physical, emotional and sexual), unequal playing time, out-of-control parents, abuse of officials by parents and coaches, politics, lack of women coaches and administrators, and the emphasis on sports to the exclusion of family life, weren't being much talked or written about. There was no website like MomsTeam that addressed all of these issues in an objective, practical and informative way.

So where are we today? In some ways, things have gotten better, and some ways they have stayed the same, and in some ways they have gotten worse.

On the plus side

First, the good news. There is a great deal more education being done on safety issues, although, because more and more kids, particularly girls are playing, the jury is still out as to whether it has actually resulted in fewer injuries.

  • Concussions: In 2000, MomsTeam was the only website sounding the alarm bells on the problem of concussions in youth sports.  MomsTeam is the  pioneer in providing in-depth information for parents on the signs and symptoms of concussion and the dangers of allowing kids to return to play too soon after a concussion. Now, everyone, including and perhaps most especially the NFL, has jumped on that bandwagon, with the result that concussion safety has become a priority, with laws or rules against same-day-return-to-play enacted by state legislatures and high school athletic associations, and with an explosion of research devoted to the subject, including three international consensus statements on sports concussions, and much more conservative return to play guidelines (especially widespread implementation of a no same day return to play rule).  The problem is that, although awareness is at an all-time high, the players themselves  - the ones whose brains are being rattled and who at risk of suffering adverse long-term health consequences  -  still tend to think of themselves as invincible and are the ones who, in a recent ESPN poll, are the least likely to be concerned about concussions, the most reluctant to sit out a game with a concussion, or believe that a headache (far and away the number one symptom of concussion) should prevent them from returning to the same game.
  • Sudden cardiac death:  In 2000, MomsTeam was the first to talk about the need for AEDs at every youth sports game and practice in case an athlete went into sudden cardiac arrest from a congenital heart defect or from commotio cordis (an ill-timed blow to the chest with a lacrosse ball or baseball). Now AEDs are mandated in schools in many states and much more widely found as part of the first-aid and emergency medical plans for youth sports organizations, particularly schools.  MomsTeam has long urged that youth athletes undergo comprehensive pre-participation physical evaluations (PPE), including the taking of a comprehensive cardiac history, and supports the recent campaign by a coalition of medical groups to standardize PPEs.
  • Hydration/heat illness:  In 2000, MomsTeam was one of the first websites to provide information about the risks from dehydration and heat illness, especially during pre-season football practices; today parents are better informed about the how to keep their kids hydrated before, during and after sports, the advantages of sports drinks such as Gatorade over water, how to recognize the signs of dehydration, and the need to cancel or modify practices in hot and humid weather conditions.
  • Girls' sports:  Things are definitely better now for girls than they were when I was an athlete before the enactment of Title IX. There are far more opportunities for girls to play sports than ever before, but with those opportunities have come the problems that so often plague boys' sports: injuries, stress, an emphasis on winning to the exclusion of skill development and having fun, and a troubling lack of sportsmanship.
  • MRSA: As a result of our efforts, parents are more educated about how to spot and prevent the spread of contagious bacterial skin infections such as MRSA.
  • Parental behavior: Anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of out-of-control parents and fan abuse of officials may have gotten slightly better over the past decade, but it is still definitely a problem.
  • More safety consciousness.  There have been a lot of rule changes in recent years designed to make youth sports safer: banning same-day return to play after a concussion, pitch limits and rest periods for youth baseball pitchers, and rules against pitchers from going behind the plate as catchers in youth baseball and requiring break-away bases, being just a couple of examples. High school football programs are doing a better job of putting in rules requiring frequent hydration breaks and taking other steps to reduce the risk of heat illness, even death, during pre-season football two-a-day practices.

Persistent problems

In some ways the problems we saw in youth sports in 2000 are still about the same:

  • There are still too many athletes who are suffering physical, emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of coaches and, in some cases, their own parents, some of whom are still willing to put their children's long-term health at risk in the quest for scarce athletic scholarships by allowing their kids to play on too many teams, all-year long without time off to rest their body, or to play through pain.
  • The problems of hazing and bullying in youth sports, as recent news stories have highlighted, remain deeply entrenched in our youth sports culture, as does the almost obsessive emphasis on winning.
  • Women are still largely relegated to the role of sideline fan, chauffeur, and "team mom" and have not made significant inroads into either the coaching world or on to the boards of youth sports organizations.

The worst of times

Finally, in some ways, unfortunately, things have only gotten worse.Youth sports have become even more of a big business than it was 10 years ago, and that isn't necessarily a good thing. Some  coaches want their players to go to summer camps in which, in some cases, they have a financial interest.  Some coaches are only too happy to lead - and in some cases mislead - parents and their kids into thinking that if they don't go to this camp or use that private coach they aren't going to win a place on the high school varsity or get a college scholarship. 

There is a whole industry that has sprouted to provide private sports instruction, sports performance gyms are the latest rage, the number of tournaments and multi-million dollar sports complexes have exploded.  Programs to provide sports instruction to children as young as six months are sprouting up like weeds all around the country, luring parents with promises that they can give their toddler an edge or accelerate the natural developmental process. 

Some schools are spending millions on new football stadiums while their academic programs suffer from budget cutbacks. Almost 4 out of 10 of the country's high schools still lack access to an athletic trainer with specialized expertise in the recognition, treatment of and recovery from sports injuries. 

More and more programs have been forced to impose user fees and raise vast sums of money through booster clubs, fundraisers and the like just to keep teams on the field, putting sports out of the reach of low- and even middle-income families.

Media coverage of youth sports - online, in newspapers and on cable - is becoming more and more intense, as has competition for scarce roster spots on high school and elite travel teams, with more and more athletes competing for places. 

Childhood obesity is a major problem, with the dropout rate from youth sports just one one factor: poor diet, too many video games, too much television, and not enough after school sports programs for kids who aren't good enough or don't want to play on sports teams, also play a role.  A recent study even shows that youth sports aren't providing even those who make the team the hour a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day they need to stay healthy and fit.

Yet being an elite youth athlete these days has become even more all-consuming for more families, further crowding out other activities (including good old-fashioned free time) and gobbling up more and more of a family's discretionary income, with school vacations now devoted to traveling to tournaments and the all-around camp experience replaced by with specialized sports camps.

The overuse injury problem has grown into a full-blown epidemic in some sports. More and more athletes, particularly girls, seem to be suffering serious ACL injuries.

The hurried child

Are kids just too busy with sports? For most, I would say yes. Very few youth athletes end up playing at the college level. Fewer still make the pros. Yet sports have become a matter of life-or-death for many kids, leading inevitably to early burnout and overuse injuries, and leaving little time for spending time with their families. I have been a strong advocate for many years, and continue to advocate, for a balance between sports and family, for kids to have time to just be kids. Studies show that unstructured, free play is vital for a child's development, yet more and more parents feel compelled in a society where jobs are scarce and competition in every aspect of life is all-consuming, to jam their kids schedules with organized activities such as sports.

If anything, the emphasis on winning, by any means, fair or foul, has become more and more pronounced over the past ten years.  Parents have so much invested in their child's athletic success that they seem more inclined than ever to believe that rules that result in their child being kicked off the team (such as for hazing or for under-age drinking) should no longer apply, even to the point of going to court to try to keep their kids playing.

Yet studies have consistently shown over the years and continue to show today that kids, even at the high school level, would rather play on a losing team than sit on the bench of a winning team. Winning is important, but in the adult-centered world of today's youth sports it has become the only thing. We need to listen to our kids, to make youth sports more child-centered, more about having fun, more about skill development and giving them an opportunity to start a love affair with sports and physical exercise that can last a lifetime instead of ending, as is too often the case, in them quitting sports or being cut from the team by the time they start middle school.

I am afraid we are losing the battle against a win-at-all-costs attitude in youth sports, but MomsTeam and I won't give up trying to stem that tide.

Violence in sports

Aggression is something about which I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, there is a certain amount of aggression that is simply inborn, especially in boys, and sports provide them a way to safely channel that aggression. On the other hand, aggressive behavior in sports can turn into violence, both on and off the field, and that kind of behavior needs to be controlled, and I'm not sure that it is in all cases.

More stressful

Part of MomsTeam's mission from the very beginning has been to make youth sports less stressful - for the parents, for their kids, for the coaches, for the officials. Unfortunately, I think we have been fighting against a rising tide of stress that is, more and more, part of everyday life, especially in the last couple of years since the economy went south, with our kids becoming just as stressed, if not more stressed, than their parents.

On the one hand, there are those who argue that subjecting our kids to these stresses is good, that it prepares them for the stresses they are inevitably going to face as adults. On the other hand, I see one of a parent's most important jobs as providing kids some shelter, some respite from the stresses of the adult world, to give them chances to just be kids.

Unfortunately, sports, which used to provide that opportunity, whether it be in a pick-up basketball game at the playground or baseball game on the sandlot, are so highly organized and competitive these days that sports have become just as, if not more, stressful for kids than anything else they do.

Where to go from here

So, is youth sports in better shape today than 10 years ago? Not necessarily better, but definitely different, and the overall trends are disturbing. 

Safety education appears to be an area where progress is being made, but a great deal more needs to and should be done to educate parents and athletes about the dangers of concussion, heat illness, and overuse injuries.

As far as restoring a balance between sports and family life, the battle may well have been lost and, if I had to make a prediction, things are going to only get more out of whack in the next ten years.

In the final analysis, it is going to be up to individual parents to do what they feel is best for their kids, for their safety, for their development and for their overall health, to enroll their children as much as possible in programs that emphasize having fun, skill development, and using sports to teach life lessons, organizational and time management skills as much as winning, to find the balance between sports and family that works best for them.  

All MomsTeam can do is to continue to do what we can to help sports parents achieve their goals, to continue educating parents and coaches on ways to make youth sports safer, saner, less stressful and more inclusive; to be the trusted source for youth sports parents for the next ten years as we have become over the last ten.

Brooke de Lench is the founder and publisher of MomsTeam.com and the author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins).

Want to share your thoughts on the state of youth sports? Join MomsTeam on Facebook or send Brooke an email at delench@momsteam.com.

Posted December 20, 2010; Revised December 21, 2010