By Brian Park
Stefano Perez is quite the sportsman for a nine-year old. In addition to the five days a week he spends at school, Stefano is heavily involved in organized youth sports, splitting his time between baseball, soccer, and the swim team. When he can afford the time, Stefano also likes to play street hockey and enjoys practicing archery and fencing. And just the other day, Stefano was at a friend’s fencing-themed birthday party near his home in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
But on this Saturday morning at the Heckscher Ball fields in Central Park, with his father Enrique’s gaze intently fixed on his son’s every move, Stefano crouches behind home plate, playing catcher for the Yorkville Mutt Dogs of the Manhattan Babe Ruth League. If he had his way, Stefano would never leave the infield. “I don’t really like the outfield,” he says. “Sometimes the balls never come to the outfield, but when you get to the major leagues, they’re going to start coming to you. So when I get older, I’m probably going to start wanting to be in the outfield more.”
“He wants to be everything,” says Enrique. “He wants to be a baseball player, a fireman, a policeman, and he wants to make video games.”
In the seven to nine-year old level of the Cal Ripken Division, volunteer coaches throw underhand pitches to pint-sized batters, and catchers like Stefano stand, instead of crouch, behind the plate to receive the balls and strikes.
“Hey Stefano! Throw it back to the pitcher,” his father says from behind a chain-link fence. “None of these lobs, Stef. You can throw it a lot better than that.”
“The play is never over gentlemen,” one of the coaches hollers. “The play is never over until the ball is back.”
For the past four years, every Saturday morning, from early April until mid March, Stefano has played nearly every position for his Yorkville team. From the dugout, the bleachers, or from directly behind the backstop, Enrique has always been at his son’s games to watch him play.
According to the National Council of Youth Sports (NCYS), there more than 44 million boys and girls who participate in organized youth sports in the United States. That number is larger when factoring in the unquantifiable number of children who play unorganized, or rather, unregulated sports during their spare time. The NCYS is an advocacy group that represents the industry of youth sports. Its membership includes primarily senior and executive level representatives from national organizations such as Little League Baseball, Pop Warner Little Scholars and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. “We keep a pulse on what’s going on, and we get involved with issues that are across the industry,” says NCYS Executive Director Sally Johnson. “It is an industry.”
Based on the latest NCYS market research report on trends and participation in organized youth sports, there was a 58 percent increase in participation from 1997 to 2008. The report, which is based on a survey of NCYS members, is one piece of evidence in an ever-increasing trend of kids giving up their free time to play sports in organized leagues and other structured formats of play.
“There wasn’t much arm-twisting there,” says Enrique about his son’s decision to play organized baseball. “When he was growing up, walking around the neighborhood, he saw kids in uniforms, going out to play. Obviously, we went out and just bought him his little glove and bat. So when the time came, I said, ‘Do you want to play?” And he said, ‘Yeah. Absolutely.’”
The increase in participation in organized youth sports is a dramatic shift that has taken place over the course of several decades, and it is a trend that has not gone unnoticed among youth sports advocates. While many of these advocates do not disregard organized youth sports as a method of play for children, there is a question of whether aspects of a heightened level of structure, or regimentation, is detrimental to a child’s development and the necessity for fun and enjoyment. “Sports are the outdoor classroom of life,” says Fred Engh, founder of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NYSA) and the author of Why Johnny Hates Sports (1999). “If [organized youth sports] is done right, then you learn things such as perseverance. You learn to abide by rules, training, and discipline.”
Unorganized youth sports provide a less strict and more natural process of growth and development and an uninhibited capacity for fun. However, as the statistics show and as Engh emphasizes, more parents are signing their children up for organized sports because there is a far greater concern for child safety than in generations past. “It’s the age we live in,” says Engh. “People are afraid of crime, drugs, violence, and everything else, and there are [fewer] neighborhoods like there used to be where kids could go down the street and be gone all day long. Parents feel safer, obviously, with organized sports.”
Although overzealous parenting is at the forefront of concerning youth sports issues, there also exists a lack, or misguided approach, of parental involvement. Many youth organizations require that coaches be certified before stepping onto the field, and many youth sports advocacy groups like the NYSA either provide certification courses or can refer coaches to classes. Frank Smoll is a professor of psychology at the University of Washington and the co-director of Youth Enrichment in Sports (YES), another advocacy group that offers courses for coaches and parents.
According to YES, more than 25,000 coaches in the United States and Canada have participated in some 500 workshops that the group has offered. However, parent participation in workshops and programs have not been as successful. “Parents are a pretty difficult nut to crack,” says Smoll. “When we’ve held workshops for parents, the attendance is pretty much dismal. Sports should not be viewed just as a free babysitting service. They should really serve as extensions of the positive models coaches provide for kids, so that when the coaches teach the kids on the playing field, the parents can pick right up on it in the home environment.”
Brian Flaherty is another parent whose son plays for the Yorkville Mutt Dogs. Although Flaherty did not want to disclose his son’s name, he says that it was his son’s choice to play in an organized league because he enjoys competition and wanted to play in a uniform. But Flaherty also acknowledged that his son struggles with self-confidence and that he does his best to counsel his son and help him improve.
“He gets a little discouraged when he’s not doing well, and that’s what we’re trying to fight right now,” says Flaherty. “It’s just his way of thinking, and I’ve been the one trying to put positive spins on it. It’s part of the growing up process.”
Neither Flaherty nor Perez say that playing baseball in high school, college or the pros is important for their sons at their age. Both fathers take their sons to professional games and from time to time, Perez admits he talks to Stefano about the dedication it takes to play at the professional level. While many of his peers idolize Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, Stefano’s favorite player is New York third baseman Alex Rodriguez. “He’s a good hitter,” he says. “He has good style when he bats.” Stefano is equally keen about style, form, and fundamentals when he’s playing catcher. “I think that I’m trying to do my best and just to see if there are any balls, foul tips,” he says. “That way, I can see if I can catch them.”
According to Smoll, the biggest problem that youth sports faces is the mistaken application of professional models to what should be a developmental process. “A youth sports model is one that emphasizes child growth and development,” he says. “A professional model is one that is product oriented. It’s part of the entertainment industry so that the number one product in professional sport is making money.”
Says Engh: “When you structure an activity, a sport program for children and mirror it after professional sports, with scoreboards, championships, all-star teams, and all that, you’re just asking for the opportunity to have a lot of kids to not have fun.”
Tim Donovan, the director of the Youth Sports Institute at the State University of New York, leads an aggressive approach to ensuring the commitment to free playtime for children in conjunction with structured, organized play. The SUNY Youth Sports Institute, like YES, also provides certification courses and programs for youth sports administrators, coaches, and parents, and according to their website, YES has trained and certified over 9,000 coaches in New York since March 2008. Last year, Donovan helped develop and orchestrate “Sandlot Days,” a call for organized youth baseball leagues to give “ownership” of the game back to the players; parents and coaches are encouraged to simply watch as children decide whether or not to wear uniforms, keep score, pick their own teams, and play as they wish. The idea relates to a time when neighborhood children congregated at local “sandlots” to play baseball or to an empty field to play football.
“We embrace organized youth sports. You’re not going to change the fact that organized youth sports exists,” says Donovan. “We want coaches to understand that this is playtime. Kids do not play sports. They play games.”
Smoll praises Donovan’s efforts with the Sandlot Days concept. “In an ideal world, you still have opportunities for the spontaneity of play,” says Smoll. “That’s an inherent part of the construct of play.”
Free play is a time for children to experiment and learn essential life skills in a low-pressure environment, says Donovan. “The things we learned from unsupervised play, like conflict resolution, nobody was there to manage it for us,” he says. “We learned how to negotiate. We learned consensus without any adults. We learned how to take care of the weakest member of our group without having any adults telling us how to do it. We call these processes ‘building blocks of civilization.’”
Neither Flaherty nor Perez seem to be concerned with the specific arguments for and against organized and unorganized youth sports. Ultimately, both parents say their main concerns are that their sons are being productive by partaking in regular physical activity and are having fun while they’re doing it.
Says Enrique Perez: “Whether it’s organized or unorganized, I think it’s almost secondary to the fact of them just getting good physical activity.”
It’s not lost on Enrique, or youth sports advocates, that despite all the critical attention on organized youth activities, the most important participants are the children themselves. Children like Stefano are not as concerned with the same issues their parents and advocates struggle over. The common denominator of all three—parents, children, and advocates—is that having fun is the most important outcome of youth sports participation.
When asked how he would react should his son say he was no longer having fun playing baseball, Enrique says he would not force it upon Stefano. “There are plenty of things he does enjoy doing so if it’s not this, I’m sure he would follow it up with something else,” says Enrique. “But first and foremost, it’s for him to have fun and just enjoy being out here and playing baseball. And he does.”