SBJ/August 14-20, 2017/Opinion

Teeing off with the concept of ‘team’ in youth sports

Emphasis on developing young athletes versus winning is on a positive arc. There will always be obnoxious adults showcasing poor sportsmanship and living vicariously through their children’s sports careers. But leagues, clubs and teams are increasingly educating these audiences. Coaches are held to more rigorous certifications and parents to higher behavioral standards when children are much younger. Combined, the results are more enjoyable experiences for those mattering most — the athletes.

Youth sports are intimidating and distractions of sedentary pursuits like video gaming are omnipresent. Additionally, parents are overwhelmed with recreational options and mounting costs, travel distance and other intensifying barriers to entry.

Children classified as inactive jumped from 20 percent in 2014 to a whopping 37.1 percent in 2015, according to SIPlay.com. Strikingly, three of every eight kids are barely partaking in any physical activity at all, much less participating in youth sports leagues.

Putting the “fun” back in sports through camaraderie among teammates is integral to jump-starting players at young ages and easing their returns each season.

Golf answered this challenge head-on in 2009 by creating PGA Junior League Golf that turns a solitary sport into an exciting group activity. An alternative, social format for boys and girls 13 and under, like other recreational leagues, they learn and enjoy the game donning numbered jerseys on teams with friends.

Since its inception, PGA Junior League Golf rapidly grew to 42,000 participants competing on 2,900 teams in 47 states and all 41 PGA of America sections. From 2009 to date, the program realized a more than 300 percent increase. This is one example of an individual sport that highlights “working together for a common goal” at a younger age while developing lifelong loyalists.

For well-established team sports, differentiation can be challenging. However, some are uniquely branding themselves with missions far more important than wins and losses. Disrupting the youth development model is US Club Soccer with 500,000 registered elite players and 75,000 coaches nationwide. Its philosophy is simple: Better clubs develop better coaches, and better coaches develop better players.

In August 2015 at Nike’s global headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., the organization launched “Players First,” a holistic club soccer experience for parents and players, emphasizing development of individuals to his and her full potential. Most important, it helps parents make informed choices about where their kids should play by providing a suite of resources to identify like-minded clubs and leagues.

The Players First mentality is prompting others to alter their strategies by putting more meaning behind the people and communities they serve. Additionally, youth players are encouraged more than ever to take pride in their own development, whether in a team setting or as an individual within a larger group.

The fear of losing and the pressure to perform should not cause the youth sports industry to lose participants and, consequently, add to our nation’s inactivity. Organizations serving athletes 13 and under must focus on building well-rounded training and competition environments promoting fun and engagement. When matriculating to the next level at age 14 and beyond, decisions about where to play are difficult, but alignment with like-minded core values and proper research will lead parents and athletes in the right direction.

Glenn Gray is vice president of Buffalo.Agency, a marketing firm dedicated to the golf, sport, outdoor and lifestyle segments. He holds a U.S. Soccer Federation National “A” Coaching License. Follow him on Twitter at @glenncgray.

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