The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

Z_CNHI News Service

May 15, 2014

Mountain biking, rollerblading edge out baseball, football for some athletes

Playing on teams and participating in sports remains a big draw for young people – boys and girls. That’s one constant.

Noticeably different is that when games are no longer fun, young people are just as likely to hang up their cleats and walk away. Some don't even make it to their teenage years before quitting sports.

Those who investigate participation in youth sports agree on that much. Pinpointing a reason why young people fall in and out of love with sports is not as simple. There are probably many reasons.

The good news is more boys and girls are getting involved in athletic competition. Ronald B. Woods, author of the book, “Social Issues in Sports,” said overall participation has reached an all-time high. What’s alarming, said Woods, is that drop-out levels are increasing, as well.

Popular high school teams - such as basketball, soccer, baseball and football - have seen declines in members in many places. By contrast, the number of female athletes has climbed dramatically since the passage of Title IX, which mandated more opportunities for girls. Dancing, cheerleading, swimming, volleyball and soccer are extremely popular among girls and young women.

Cultural and socioeconomic issues may explain why some young people are backing away from sports.

Increases in concussions and other sports injuries - which have been highly publicized - could also be a reason why some parents advise their children to quit sports where hard-hitting play and collisions are part of the action.

Soccer, a game equally popular among boys and girls, has enjoyed a tremendous a growth spurt in the past decade or more. But it also involves serious injuries, especially concussions and ligament damage.

Many young people say they leave sports because it’s no longer fun, they don’t want to put in the extra time to be highly competitive, or they've found more enjoyable things to do. Cost is also a consideration.

In recent years, players have been encouraged to specialize in a sport so they can compete – and win – at the highest levels. That leads some to reject what they perceive as an overemphasis on winning and the stress of pleasing coaches and parents.

Woods noted in his research that boys and girls try out for teams at young ages, sometimes even before kindergarten. Top players join travel teams and participate in special leagues and tournaments throughout the year.

The changes related to that are dramatic. A Little League player may have been in 15 games during a summer season only 10 years ago. That number can easily reach 75 to 100 now for ballplayers willing to travel.

Interestingly, the number of girls and boys participating in Little League baseball has declined in recent years. Some coaches complain the defections could be tied to the growing popularity of travel teams.

Then there’s a new phenomenon - a fascination with social media, digital games and technology – proving to be a popular draw on teens’ attention. Staying connected is just as appealing to some as being competitive.

While high-profile sports are losing favor among some students, they are being replaced by other athletic activities. Boys are weight training, mountain biking, skateboarding and playing Ultimate Frisbee in growing numbers. Inline skating, lacrosse, bowling, camping and hiking are attracting new followers among girls.

That may represent a big change from the options their parents had as adolescents, but those who study such trends say the good news is that those activities keep young people from developing couch-potato habits.

What’s significant with youth sports today is that more kids than ever are participating - even if many are choosing to play different games and picking new activities, some of which aren’t team-oriented.

For many, sports are about competition and winning. For others, it’s about the joy of the experience.

Either way, that should be celebrated and encouraged.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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