A pastime for parents and grandparents alike, watching youth sports has become a whole different ball game in recent years thanks to a number of changes — and not always for the better.
Dr. Jennifer Koontz, a former Thresher who currently practices with Newton Orthopedics and Sports Medicine and serves as team physician for Bethel College, Hesston College and Newton High School, addressed that shifting landscape in a presentation ("Youth Sports: Do the Benefits Outweigh the Risks?") at the Bethel College Life Enrichment series Wednesday morning, including a number of items that have had a negative impact on the games.
Youth sports draws a lot of participation, with 60 million children playing youth sports and 75 percent of American households having at least one kid involved in youth sports — though Koontz pointed out those numbers have been decreasing. Over the past five years, there have been 2.6 million fewer kids playing youth sports, while 70 percent of kids drop out of a particular sport by age 13.
Several problems have emerged playing into that downwards trend in participation, not least of which is the professionalization of youth sports. Youth sports, Koontz noted, has become a $15 billion industry for the tournament organizers, recruiters, media companies and others involved.
"This has become a whole new business model for a lot of people out there," Koontz said. "Adults are making big money off this."
Ways in which the industry has been monetized includes forming travel teams as early as 6 years old, as well as national rankings being produced for athletes starting at that age — though Koontz noted she has seen push back to the later.
Focus on the professionalization of young athletes can also create burnout if the kids feel the sport becoming less "fun" and more stressful, which Koontz said may lead to depressions and even an increased suicide risk. Additionally, those negative effects of burnout can be attributed to specialization — having children focus on one sport.
In some cases, Koontz noted coaches will make children as young as 7 sign contracts locking them in to only play "their sport." Malcom Gladwell's book "Outliers" also attributed partly to the issue of specialization, as it claimed it took 10,000 hours of practice to become "world class" in any activity. Koontz noted that myth has been debunked, and other books (i.e. "The Sports Gene" by David Epstein) have pointed to natural development driving performance — so specialization should not even be considered, truly, until high school level.
"You don't even know what your body is going to be like when you're 10," Koontz said.
Another push for that specialization comes in the quest for a college scholarship, but statistics show only seven percent of high school athletes play in college and only two percent make it to Division I. Of those athletes, only two percent of undergraduates earn athletic scholarships — though the average scholarship ($12,000) covers only about one-third the cost of the average annual college tuition ($35,000).
Money is a big driver of youth sports, and hurdle in some cases, as Koontz relayed a study that showed only 25 percent of kids from lower-income neighborhoods go on to play high school sports.
While limited family time is seen as another detriment, Koontz said parents can also contribute to the problems with youth sports through their own unhealthy participation. Koontz showed video evidence Wednesday of a fight that broke out at a youth softball game last year — and went viral — and noted that is becoming less and less unusual.
"I've seen parents fight. I've seen parents get kicked out of games. The parents are investing so much time and energy that it gets stressful," Koontz said.
Risk of injury can also be seen as a detriment and factor driving participation numbers down, as Koontz said football concussions continue to be a concern (locally, Newton starts tackle football as early as first grade) while it was also pointed out that 60 percent of Tommy John surgeries are currently performed on youth ages 15 to 19, with 3.5 million kids under 14 needing injury treatment in general on a yearly basis.
Despite those issues, Koontz had a laundry list of reasons as to why children should participate in sports from the character-building benefits (teaching cooperation, leadership, social development, etc.) to more long-term perks like decreasing the likelihood of obesity, teen pregnancy and adult health issues such as heart disease.
"There are a lot of studies that show the more active you are in school, the better you learn," Koontz said. "The benefits are endless."
Ultimately, answering the question at the center of the presentation, Koontz found that youth sports are worth it — as long as changes continue to be made.
Koontz herself stated she has fallen into some of the traps that are causing issues with youth sports with her own children, but there are a number of solutions out there to help promote healthy athletic involvement among kids.
Professional leagues have done their part in advertising some key measures to follow (like the NBA's age appropriate guidelines for athletic activity), while Koontz also shared information on the Aspen Institute's Project Play — which features a list of "plays" to help keep kids engaged in youth sports.
Among the plays lined out including asking kids what they want (with a survey showing fun is the top priority), reintroducing free play, encouraging sport sampling over specialization, training all coaches (to be respectful and encouraging), revitalizing in-town leagues and more.
Revitalizing in-town leagues was something Koontz made note of in particular when questioned how she would try to positively impact the local youth sports culture.
Specifically, she noted how fragmenting (having athletes travel to compete in Wichita or other out-of-town leagues) can have a negative impact on those athletes who remain to compete in Newton leagues. While she didn't want to ask more of local teachers and coaches, Koontz did say that having some trickle-down involvement from upper level athletics would foster stronger local leagues and help fight that competitive migration.
"One thing that works well in communities is when the high school provides leadership to the youth sports," Koontz said. "Anything we can do to keep things in Newton would be really successful."