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Thursday, March 28, 2013

REFLECTIONS: How to make the MOST of your Youth Sports time and dollars

It's no secret that most parents must pay attention to how they spend their hard-earned dollars for their children's extra-curricular activities. Youth sports are a great pathway for kids to explore how their bodies move, how their minds can adapt to quick decision-making, and how it’s possible to push themselves beyond what they may have individually ever expected. There is even the component of how their efforts can add value to group camaraderie and team spirit. But all this brain and brawn training, combined with the ever-present necessity for both more and higher-tech equipment and accessories, comes at a cost. The parental money tree may not always be full of ripened fruit.
In his book entitled The Most Expensive Game in Town: The Rising Cost of Youth Sports and the Toll on Today's Families, Mark Hyman (author, journalist, Professor of Sports Management at George Washington University) takes a behind-the-scenes look at the business of youth sports—mainly how the marketplace capitalizes on the nearly 50 million kids in organized sports each year. He considers monies for equipment and apparel, league fees, travel expenses, and other intangibles that are forcing money out of the wallets of parents at an alarming rate even at a time when budgets are tight.
This book is just one example that sheds a light on the amount of monetary transaction taking place in most of today's organized youth sports. Visit any league website and you will be directed to registration fees, late fees, mandatory fundraising, travel expenses and sometimes even, my favorite, concession-stand forced labor. And these are only the visible dollars as things such as banquet fees, snacks, and sometimes even hotel accommodations come with the package. Once you begin to add in the other requisite expenses of pads and protectors, specialized footwear, socks, cups, gloves, bats, balls, mouthguards, sticks and more, the cost continues to mount. Some sports are more costly than others. But if you have aspirations to be on a travel team of any sort, everything escalates to yet another level. Am I saying this type of recreation, and its associated costs, shouldn't be made available to kids? Certainly not as thousands of kids and their parents each year enjoy their time together in sport. Yet one does need to take pause from time to time and reflect on just how much is necessary. In an anecdote from a book by former NBA player Bob Bigelow-—Just Let the Kids's Play: How to Stop Other Adults from Ruining Your Child's Fun and Success in Youth Sports-—he cites a Texas baseball team campaigning for fifteen hundred dollars in order to take its 5 and 6 year old All-star T-ball players to a state championship. We're talking T-ball here folks where kindergarteners compete against other kindergarteners for spots on elite T-ball teams. This is a sport, Bob Bigelow goes on to explain, where typically only one in fifteen kids is active at a time since one player is at bat while the others either sit the bench or dance around aimlessly in the outfield waiting for a ball that rarely comes.
As you can see, the cost of youth sports goes well beyond dollars and cents. Sports can sometimes give the illusion of being a great “activity” for children whose level of obesity as a group has tripled in the last 30 years. But activity does not always mean “active.” Many players spend weekends, during what are called “seasons”, idle on benches during a “game”, and many of the players get little of the activity they signed up for. When one looks at both the time and money invested, and how much playing time their kids actually benefit from, it is critical for parents to make the best decisions. Think back to your own childhood and imagine how much fun you had playing any game that did not keep you engaged throughout. You probably stopped that game and tried something else.
Just pointing out the challenges however is only part of the solution. Could there be an alternative where no one sits on the bench, every person is active at all times, skills are taught and learned, fun is a by-product each and every time kids participate, and friendly competition becomes an enjoyable activity instead of gut wrenching anxiety? And is it possible that this could also have a low barrier to entry with family-friendly fees and virtually no equipment to purchase? There is an alternative, it is called tennis, and it’s available right here in Gloucester Twp. through the Recreation Center. For the price of a modest meal for a family of 4, kids ages 5-10 can participate in the beginnings of the lifetime sport cited in a 2010 article from the Washington Post touting a 43 percent increase in player participation since the year 2000.
Parents today are burdened with making many decisions about how to spend time with their kids as well as where best to allocate funds for their future development. When a mom or dad can share a common athletic interest with their children of any age, and then participate with their kids on their own schedule and at little to no cost in a public park setting, everybody is a winner. Thanks to public courts, low-cost racquets, and new, more user-friendly tennis balls that helps make everyone successful, more people than ever are hitting the courts as a family. League practices, the time spent when kids usually prepare for game time, can be replaced with family events on the court. Spring and summer sessions, not seasons, can provide the team environment that many kids crave with competitive games that are skill-based. Remember, even though most think of tennis as an individual sport, mostly every high school and college have male and female tennis teams that are successful on the individual efforts of each team member. A team is simply a group of like-minded individuals.
Michele Obama, as a part of her Let’s Move! campaign to promote a healthier generation of kids, aligned herself with the United States Tennis Association in 2011 and said, “ "Thanks to programs like the USTA’s 10 and Under Tennis initiative, it’s easier than ever for kids to get active and have fun.” Perhaps there is something to this sport, this activity, this low-cost form of family entertainment. This may be one solution that helps maximize both time and money in youth sports.

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