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Volume 20 No. 45
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State of play: Youth sports

Soccer, volleyball see participation numbers rising among high school girls

Participation in girls high school soccer has increased 10 percent or more in 16 states in the past five years.
When the AAU’s director of sports considers some of the swings in the choices high school girls are making these days, he tracks back to trends that have taken hold on the youth sports scene.

Volleyball and soccer, fueled by large, well-established club systems with paid coaches who hard-sell the promise of a college scholarship, are on the rise.

Basketball and softball, which often lack that level of club infrastructure, have seen declines in high school participation.

“I think a lot of it has to do with how soccer and volleyball have organized themselves from a grassroots perspective,” said James Parker, who oversees AAU youth programs in 35 sports. “There are not a lot of big

basketball clubs where I can pay one price and get a schedule that says we train on Tuesday and Thursday and here are the dates we’re traveling and here’s our budget. That’s what parents get when they put their daughter in soccer or volleyball.

“Parents are paying more money to play in those sports. They don’t mind, because it’s organized. I’m not saying [girls] basketball is not organized. But it’s not to the level of sophistication that soccer and volleyball are because, in most cases, the model is different.

“In soccer and volleyball, they do this for a living. They have built a business out of it. It makes sense to parents — and especially to parents who are thinking of this as a way to pay for college.”

There is no way to know to what degree the growth of club participation, which encourages year-round play and often pushes girls and their families to choose one sport exclusively at an early age, is responsible for the shift toward certain sports in high school.

First Look podcast with discussion of youth sports beginning at the 7:10 mark:

But there’s no debating that shift.

Overall, girls high school sports participation rose 4.3 percent from 2010 to 2015, based on an analysis of data collected by the National Federation of State High School Associations.

But because overall participation rates count multisport athletes multiple times, and because conditions, economics and trends vary widely from state to state, one must dig deeper to get a sense for what’s going on. Among the revelations from that closer look is a considerable shift in the sports that girls now favor, which has led to double-digit swings in many states.

The winners in this, overwhelmingly, have been soccer, up by more than 10 percent in 16 states in the last five years and 28 states in the last 10, and volleyball, up by double digits in 25 states over the last 10 years.

At the same time, girls basketball has seen double-digit declines in 21 states in the last decade, with 24 states falling by more than 5 percent in the last five years. There also is cause for concern in softball, which has grown by double-digit percentages in 15 states in the last decade, but also shrank by that margin in 14 states.

All of the five- and 10-year comparisons in this analysis leave out Alabama, Oklahoma and Washington, D.C., which in recent years changed the way they count heads.

The flow away from basketball and softball and into volleyball and soccer over the last decade is most pronounced in eight states, several of which include cities of considerable size: Colorado, Connecticut, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. Georgia, Maryland and New Hampshire have seen similar shifts, though to lesser degrees.

Participation is up in all four of those sports in 10 states. It’s down in all four in only four states. In eight states, soccer is the only one of those sports that is up.

Specialization concerns

When longtime college softball coach Carol Bruggeman assesses the state of that sport, she sees growth in many metrics. More college softball airs on television than ever before, with the Women’s College World Series attracting audiences of nearly 2 million for the best-of-three finals. Attendance exceeds 8,500 per session.

“Softball has had this huge explosion,” said Bruggeman, the executive director of the National Fastpitch Coaches Association, who coached at Michigan, Purdue and Louisville and has served as a TV analyst for ESPN, the Big Ten Network and SEC Network. “But when you peel the onion back and look at the high school level, you’re not seeing quite the same thing. I think part of that is that girls have so many choices now … But a lot of it is that players of any sport are specializing at a much earlier age.

“It used to be that someone who was really good at softball would also play volleyball and maybe run track. Now, they feel like they have to do [hitting] lessons. They’ve got to play in tournaments a little more. Those things are expected. So they don’t pick as many high school sports, which is really sad.”

“It used to be that someone who was really good at softball would also play volleyball and maybe run track. Now, they feel like they have to do [hitting] lessons. They’ve got to play in tournaments … So they don’t pick as many high school sports, which is really sad.”

Executive Director,
National Fastpitch Coaches Association

Bruggeman said she worries that the increased cost of softball — both in terms of equipment and travel for top teams — also has decreased the pool of potential players.

To address the increasingly packed tournament and showcase schedule, the NFCA successfully lobbied the NCAA’s Division I Council to drastically reduce evaluation periods in the fall. While driven largely by coaches’ preference to be on campus with incoming players in September and October, the move also should reduce pressure on players to travel to so many showcases.

“Kids know a lot of college recruiters are out there, so they feel they have to play,” Bruggeman said. “If tournament directors still want to have tournaments [in the fall], they can. But the Division I coaches aren’t going to be there.

“We’re hoping that flows down to the kids. Maybe instead of feeling they have to be out there year-round to get recruited they’ll play volleyball or soccer or golf.”

Volleyball made headlines recently when the NFHS numbers revealed that it had surpassed basketball as the No. 2 sport for girls, behind track and field, which with its large squads and low barrier to entry is the
No. 2 sport on the boys side behind football.

In competitive basketball circles, this was cause for particular concern, since the two sports place a similar premium on long athletes who jump well. But from a broader perspective, it’s the fact that the increase of one sport would necessarily lead to a decline in another that has some concerned.

“There are lot of positives that come from playing high school sports,” said Terry Liskevych, who coached the U.S. women’s volleyball team through three Olympics and now operates a coaches education website called “You socialize. You feel self-worth. You learn how to compete. All those are great. Those are why you play sports. But that’s not what drives club volleyball. Twelve scholarships drive club volleyball.
“The clubs have created a ‘play in college, play one sport’ mentality. Kids burn out. They get injured. You have so many leaders trying to get this turned around, saying play multiple sports, but I’m afraid the train has left the station.
“And it’s a runaway train.”

‘Everything has become year-round’

At the youth level, that train has yielded a mixed bag.

A Sports and Fitness Industry Association survey that is the most widely accepted gauge of youth sports participation showed an 8 percent increase in those aged 6-17 playing team sports in 2015 as compared to a year earlier and a 5 percent increase over a five-year span. But it also showed a continued decline in the number of sports they play, which fell to 1.89 per child, a drop of almost 15 percent from where it was in 2011.

The head of basketball’s national governing body agreed that the increase in specialization likely has been a factor in the decline of girls’ participation in that sport.

“I think there’s some correlation,” said Jim Tooley, CEO of USA Basketball. “We don’t have one underlying reason that it’s down. But we’re very much aware that it is and we’re trying to address it.”

Last year, USA Basketball rolled out a set of guidelines meant to address some of the downside that has come along with increased club and travel play. Those recommendations included practices no longer than 75 minutes and no more than two games per week for those under age 12, as well as no more than two tournament games per day for any age player.

The guidelines also recommended no more than seven months of basketball per year for 12- to 14-year-olds and capped high school age players at nine to 10 months. They discouraged specialization in basketball before age 14.

“We want to eliminate the burnout and address the injury factors,” Tooley said. “Everything has become year-round. Everything is nonstop.

“Kids have to have time to be kids.”

Because it is linked so closely with the travel sports culture, the AAU frequently is viewed as an organization that has fostered the trend of single-sport specialization, especially in the sports in which it operates heavily recruited events. But Parker points out that the AAU charges only a single $14 annual membership that clears athletes to participate in any of its sports; that it is increasingly pairing events in two sports at a single site; and that its six-day Junior Olympics annually brings a broad menu of youth sports to cities across the country.

“We’re a multisport organization and we encourage athletes to play multiple sports,” Parker said. “But parents a lot of times are fed different information. They want their child to be the best in that one sport. They’ll give them all the training they can give them in the hope that this will guide them in a direction to earn a scholarship.

“To a lot of parents, that’s what this is all about.”