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2004 Custom Soccer Trends

2004 Trends in Youth Sports

As organized team sports have grown in participation, the issues surrounding them have become more visible and controversial. Here are some of the issues that are on the minds of youth sports leaders.

Background Checks

Background checks for adult volunteers. Advances in computer technology and laws providing increased access to public records have made it both possible and economical for youth sports organizations to conduct background checks on the adults who coach the teams and manage the local league affairs. As a result, both Little League Baseball and Pop Warner Football have made such checks mandatory and other organizations are considering a similar requirement. Conducting these checks is no small effort: Little League alone estimated that its various local leagues-all run by volunteers-conducted background checks on more than 600,000 individuals for the 2003 season. At least 43 states now allow non-profit organizations to check their lists of registered sex offenders online without cost; others charge fees ranging from $5 to $18. In addition, two companies now provide databases that are almost national in scope listing individuals convicted of crimes. They charge the leagues less than $2 for each background check, a process that is done over the Internet.

Until recently, similar background checks cost from $25 to $50 and took weeks to complete. The National Council of Youth Sports, a federation of about 75 organizations involved in youth sports, estimates that its members have as many as 8 million volunteer adults. The background check process is not perfect, since many of the lists are incomplete. In addition, the checks, no matter how low in cost, present a new administrative burden for local volunteers and raise serious and delicate issues related to invasion of privacy. However, many leagues believe background checks are critically important, not only to protect the children but also to help shield the leagues from crippling litigation and skyrocketing liability insurance costs.

Both Little League and Pop Warner reported that their systems were implemented without great difficulty this year and that there were few protests from local league officials. Meanwhile, the National Council of Youth Sports is working with the Justice Department and the FBI to establish a system of conducting background checks based on fingerprints. NCYS and two other national organizations are testing a fingerprint-based system involving more than 100,000 background checks. While this system is likely to be more accurate than current procedures, it will take longer and is estimated to cost $18 per check.

Adult Misbehavior

Adult misbehavior at games. Has the behavior of adults in the stands and on the field at youth sports events gotten worse in recent years, or is the problem overblown by the media? There is no consensus on this issue. The National Council of Youth Sports, with members such as Little League and the Amateur Athletic Union, believes that while there have always been problem parents, their numbers have not increased and their influence has not worsened. Instead, the news media, with the help of modern technology such as video cameras, has magnified the issue out of proportion. Lance van Auken, director of media relations for Little League, remembers as a youngster witnessing fights on the field in the 1960s that were never reported in his local paper. "Today they would be on 'Good Morning America'," he commented. He said that Little League records indicate that complaints about parental behavior are fewer today than they were 20 or 30 years ago. A value change is also at work in our culture, van Auken suggests. "Traditionally, yelling at the umpire was thought to be part of the game of baseball," he pointed out. "Today you're ostracized for doing it."

Others hold that the problem is worsening and is threatening the basic values of youth sports. "There is an epidemic of inappropriate behavior at youth sports events," said Tina D'Aversa-Williams, publisher of SportingKid magazine. "If you go to a park tonight, you won't be able to watch a game without some adult in a crowd of 50 behaving in an ugly manner, hollering at kids, stomping out of the stands, screaming at officials. This kind of behavior feeds on itself and leads to the violence that gets in the papers. It needs to be stopped. Parents need more education and more discipline. Most league officials and people at games have no problem with efforts to instill more discipline."

When SportingKid conducted a survey of its readers in 2003 about their own experiences at games, the results were overwhelming. Eighty-four percent of respondents said they have personally witnessed parents shouting, berating or using abusive language directed at children, coaches or officials.

More than 80% said the problem had reached epidemic proportions, 80% said they personally have fallen victim to such behavior and 75% said there should be a mandatory national educational program for parents of youth sports participants. The magazine has a circulation of nearly 400,000. There were 3,300 responses at the time of tabulation, and more than 1,000 came in later.

The SportingKid survey, of course, is not scientific. Respondents are "self-selected," and tend to be those most concerned about the subject matter. Still the survey taps a wellspring of concern. "Kids are embarrassed when their parents behave badly. They don't want to be pushed to perform, they want to have fun. They want support from their parents and other adults," says D'Aversa-Williams. "They drop out if they aren't having fun. How much fun do adults have when they're being berated? Think about it, if the boss treats an employee this way, it's considered harassment."

A national survey conducted at the end of 2000 for SGMA International by American Sports Data found that 24% of parents were dissatisfied with the behavior of parents at their children's basketball, baseball, football or soccer games-sponsored either in youth leagues or by schools. The survey involved 2,820 households headed by parents of children aged 6 to 17. The fact that one in five parents is unhappy with spectator behavior is perhaps not a positive finding. The figure does not include parents whose children have dropped out of sports. Only about half of parents said they were "very satisfied" or "extremely satisfied."

Whether the problem is worsening or not, there is no question that sports organizations and volunteers are moving to change the culture at youth sporting events. In 2002, Little League provided its 7,000 leagues worldwide a multi-media program that could be used in all or part to "handle those situations where a parent's behavior gets out of hand," said Stephen D. Keener, Little League president and chief executive officer. The program includes a CD-ROM, a videotape and pamphlets reminding parents of the purposes of Little League and containing techniques for conflict resolution. Use of the materials is voluntary. Pop Warner Football has begun urging-but not mandating-more emphasis on parental education. At least one state, New Jersey, passed a law barring unruly parents from sporting events and another one increasing the penalty for violence at an event. Other states and many municipalities are considering or have passed laws directed at controlling parental behavior.

A national survey of parents found that 24% are unhappy about spectator behavior at their children's basketball, baseball, football or soccer games. How Parents Feel About Spectator Behavior Source: SGMA International/American Sports Data In 2000, the National Alliance for Youth Sports established a special program called the Parents Association for Youth Sports to educate parents whose children are involved in out-of-school organized sports. Today there are 600 chapters of PAYS around the country offering educational programs to local youth sports organizations, said Fred Engh, president and chief executive officer of NAYS. Engh founded his organization in 1981 to provide training for youth-sports coaches and has since expanded it to address other issues. NAYS now has 3,300 chapters around the country. Engh believes that training programs for youth sports leaders and parents should be mandatory. "Leaders of any organization that want to use a sports facility should be trained in the purposes of youth sports," he said. "And parents need to understand that youth sports is not a baby-sitting service and it's not diversion. There are important values involved. The child should have fun and learn values that will encourage healthy behavior for a lifetime. We need to educate people about those values."

Facility Shortage

Facility shortage. The growth of organized youth sports has seriously outpaced the availability of places to play, say youth sports leaders. A number of trends have contributed to this problem. They include the rise of soccer, the development of programs for younger children, the flood of girls into sports, the general population boom of the 6 to 17 age group and the growing trend of conducting sports programs out-of-season and even all year long. In some localities, children who wanted to play have been turned away simply because the fields or facilities are not available. In others, scheduling has become difficult, requiring children to play at times that are awkward or unsuitable. One official described a program in a suburban town where some players aged 11 or 12 were required to start their games at 8:00 p.m., with the result that they were on the field at an hour they should be preparing for bed. SGMA International, the National Council of Youth Sports and many other organizations have been lobbying Congress for years to provide increased funding for playing fields and recreational facilities. After more than a decade without funding, Congress made relatively modest grants to two programs in 1999. Total spending rose to $174 million in 2002, then was cut back to $98 million for 2003.

Early Specialization

Let's NOT be so serious. Youth sports officials have noted with concern a trend toward early specialization in a specific sport, and have done their best to discourage it. The trend to specialize often flows from parental dreams of future college scholarships or even professional careers-both of in these goals by the growing number of camps, coaches and trainers that will work with their children for a fee. When elite young players specialize, they often enter year-round training programs that can result in injury or emotional burnout. Jim Cosgrove, executive director of the United States Soccer Association, says that some children begin specializing as young as 8 or 9, while most elite players give up other sports between the ages of 11 and 13. "One of our challenges is to keep our focus on the 80% to 85% of our members who are recreational players. There is a tendency for some of them to feel that not being an elite player is a stigma, so they drop out and do something else. We need to keep opportunities open for kids to play on a social basis."

Source: SGMA, Sporting Goods Manufacturer's Association

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