COVID-19 has decimated nearly every American industry. Recovery will be difficult, but each sector will have the opportunity to ask one critical question: “How should we rebuild?” The 19 billion dollar industry of American youth sports is no different. How will we answer this question?
As the Director of National and Regional Partnerships at the U.S. Soccer Foundation, but more importantly as a youth coach of 15 years, I’ve spent a lot of my recent days, and unfortunately some of my sleepless nights, thinking about the future of youth sports.
As states reopen their economies, youth sports will eventually return as well. Players, parents, administrators and coaches will be anxious to “get back on the field,” and like other industries, youth sports will have an opportunity to reemerge differently. Resource scarcity will force all levels of youth sports to prioritize what matters most. What do we want to rebuild, and what do we want to leave behind?
Many agreed long before the Pandemic that youth sports needed more than a face lift. Participation has remained stagnant, or declined for most major youth sports. More and more, money was the key to unlocking both good coaches and even a sniff at the best competition. Gone were the days of youth pick-up, and rec leagues being “enough.” Our kids deserve the best, but is the best really the nicest uniforms and biggest tournaments halfway across the country?
I’d argue players, parents, administrators and coaches generally agree on what they care about most, but we got lost somewhere along the way. To find our way I’d ask all involved to consider prioritizing access, quality, and culture.
We all want to be able to play and coach the sports we love in our own neighborhoods. No parents or children dream of long drives in the car three to four nights a week just for practice, followed by a costly overnight tournament on day five. And while some families can manage financially, many others simply can’t afford it. Rising costs leave so many of our most vulnerable children on the outside looking in. When we prioritize access, we consider how youth from single parent homes, new immigrants, those that lack transportation or simply those that can’t afford it, can join our leagues and teams. And we can’t consider just “scholarshipping in the talented ones” a solution. No one gets a gold star for giving the next Lebron James or Messi a free ride. How do ALL our youth get access to the benefits of the sports we love?
We want to put on uniforms and play games, but mostly, it doesn’t matter if the uniforms are brand new or hand-me-down. And it doesn’t matter if games are across the country or across the street. It’s the bells and whistles that adults have added to profit, that make youth sports expensive. Our kids should have access to high quality sport opportunities—not unlimited ones. I’d start with a trained coach, enough equipment and a semi-competitive local league. Leave the dietitians, strength and conditioning coaches, fancy tracking devices in the past, if they make the cost of joining your team too expensive for the least affluent families in your community to join. Focus on creating high quality sessions and leagues that teach. Add that to getting more youth playing, through increased access, and we are well on the way to a brighter future.
We all want to be coached by adults that care more about us as people than, as players. Yet, we continually prioritize winning and the most talented players, over character. If we climb all over each other for the shot at going pro, over 99 percent of our kids get burned in the process. Our leagues and teams should prioritize culture and quality play over results. Even at the college level, I’d argue that most great coaches, teams, administrators, and players care more about HOW they played, not if they won or lost. So, who cares if your 10 year olds’ AAU team goes 12-2 or 2-12? Did the team show heart, grit and learn? Did the coaches and parents treat the opponents, referees and each other with respect? After all, with less than 1 percent of youth athletes going pro, it’s about what we learned, and the experience we carry with us, not any short term victory.
Sports are not inherently good or bad, but it is the attitude and priorities of everyone involved that make or break the experience. Sports are supposed to be fun. A safe place where youth can learn about themselves, how to move and how to interact with the world around them. Where they learn life-skills and make memories that they will keep with them for the rest of their lives. It’s simple really.
While there is no joy in youth sports being canceled across the country, there is an opportunity to rebuild differently. I implore youth athletic boards, executive directors, and most of all parents to refuse to go back to business as usual. COVID-19 has crushed youth sports, but it might be just the opportunity we needed to recreate it.