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A bursting bubble

Youth sports at a crossroads: more soul searching, less finger pointing needed

Messenger photo by Eric Pratt A look at the Dodger Stadium football field in Fort Dodge.

We need to have a very difficult conversation about both the condition and direction of youth sports in America.

I’m going to localize this column to a certain extent — not because the Fort Dodge area is “worse” than others when it comes to dwindling participation numbers, trending specialization, and a widening gap between the haves and have-nots. But this is becoming a necessary discussion everywhere, so we might as well start here.

I want to clarify at the onset that the intention isn’t to assign blame. There’s plenty to go around — coaches, parents, kids, organizations — but the task of fixing this issue and accepting responsibility is a collective one. Our society isn’t going to reverse these trends by getting even more defensive and territorial than it already tends to be.

This isn’t about a specific sport or age group, either. It would be simple to target isolated pockets of extremism or dysfunction. Truth be told, very few teams or programs and even fewer communities are handling the athletic experience the right way anymore. It’s increasingly about getting ahead and succeeding as early and often as possible, rather than teaching and being inclusive for as long as possible.

The end result? Kids who compete are burning out earlier and losing interest sooner. Kids who don’t compete are being lost in the shuffle and slipping through the cracks. There seems to be no middle ground; the supplemental and developmental programs to help bridge the gap for children and teens who are either late bloomers or on the fence about seeing a sport through has dissipated.

We aren’t raising robots. One size doesn’t fit all — physically, mentally or socioeconomically. What interests a boy or girl at 10 years old may not at 15, or vice versa. There’s no reason for a kid to have to make up their mind one way or another at such an early age, and it makes even less sense to support a system that picks and chooses before youngsters are even allowed to hit their athletic stride.

I won’t name names or get into specifics, because again, we need to focus more on being better into the future than dredging up past mistakes. Some parents need to be more involved. Others need to rein it in. Some coaches have to put more effort into being the eyes and ears of their programs much earlier than high school. Others need to stop making decisions about who’s who too early and too often.

Look, I respect anyone who takes the time to work with a team at any level. It takes extreme patience and perseverance, given the climate surrounding most sports in this day and age. There also needs to be an investment in the greater good of the group, though — not just a select few. And if a kid shows interest in other sports or activities, that’s OK. There is a level of acceptance and understanding that’s being ignored far too often by coaches who refuse to be flexible in their ways.

I also respect the desire of a mom or dad to help their child reach his or her full potential. As a father of four myself, I want what’s best for my son and daughters. But there’s so much more to it than pushing them to a tangible destination — often at all costs and at the sacrifice of so many other experiences and opportunities.

And I respect the travel, AAU or recreational programs. I really do. Again, I have to believe they’re mostly functioning with the best intentions in mind. They often get very defensive and territorial about how they operate, however. I see very little self-reflection, and even less patience or cooperation when working with other organizations to potentially form what could be a united front.

Simply put, Fort Dodge cannot afford to have kids specializing or quitting or not even trying out for sports at the current rate we’re seeing. It’s not sustainable. Yes, we’ve witnessed isolated instances of young men or women soaring to tremendous individual heights recently. And yes, certain coaches and teams have managed to weather the storm of dwindling participation numbers. But the overall trends aren’t good. There is an undercurrent of negative energy that is affecting almost every sport, and it’s often because we’re more concerned with justifying our own actions and decisions than trying to learn from each other and collectively get better.

The goal here is to neither offend or defend. Trust me, I’m often guilty of being more the problem than the solution when push comes to shove. And that’s the point: I want us to all admit this isn’t working and do something about it, rather than pretending we’re above reproach or embracing the “it’s not us” mentality.

Communication is the next step. Try to get on the same page. Ask each other questions. Sit down with fellow leaders. Find out what’s working and why; identify what isn’t working and why.

Don’t assume. Talk it out. Compromise.

We won’t reverse anything overnight. But for the sake of our kids and the future of our communities, it’s time we stop worrying so much about finding an edge and start securing more balance.

The warning signs of a crisis are everywhere. It’s up to us to take them seriously before irreparable damage is done to the sanctity of sports at its purest levels.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached via email at sports@messengernews.net, or on Twitter @MessengerSports