I’ve written before about how fewer kids are playing sports in general, but baseball and softball in particular. That’s only part of the problem though. There are also significantly fewer adults who are willing to coach or umpire/officiate for these and other sports.
Is there a link among these downward trends? I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this problem as I watch our Legion baseball team struggle every year to have enough players commit for every game and now see my daughter not have enough girls interested to have a 16U softball team for the summer.
And it’s not just here. This is a nationwide trend. Locally, the majority of the Gopher Conference can’t field a JV softball team without help from junior high kids. There are even some that don’t have JV baseball teams. On a larger scale, you will often find more multi-city teams, especially when it comes to summer baseball and softball. Younger levels don’t seem to have as many problems. The Quad Cities Baseball Association has two teams each for 12U, 11U and 10U baseball. Softball has three teams for 12U. So what changes?
Laura Hanby Hudgens of the Huffington Post has some theories. One of them is that baseball is too slow for a generation brought up on fast-paced videos and games. You do stand around a lot in baseball and softball waiting for things to happen. You can play in the field and never have a play come your way for an entire game. Kids can’t handle that inactivity unless it’s staring at a screen.
It can also be expensive. Gloves, bats, cleats, and travel can add up in a hurry. Some people just can’t afford it. Our local youth ball organizations do what they can to help give every kid an opportunity to play, regardless of financial situation. In larger cities, that’s more difficult to do. At some point, if MLB wants their sport to continue, they’ll have to put a lot of resources into youth baseball.
Hudgens had some interesting ideas I hadn’t thought of before involving families. One was that kids aren’t allowed to just run around for hours on end unsupervised in our world anymore. Many of us remember disappearing and not coming home until we heard our mother’s voice echo through the neighborhood. It’s a scarier world today, so that doesn’t happen as much.
Another of her ideas involved kids who come from homes where their parents are split. So many of us learned to love baseball from our fathers. But if you don’t see your dad as much, that can be more difficult, though not impossible. It’s simply a reality of our world, not a judgment.
Baseball and softball just aren’t as popular as sports like basketball, football, and volleyball. Fewer and fewer professional baseball players find themselves on “Most Popular Athletes” polls. And with the advent of specialization in this century, baseball is quite often NOT the sport most kids tend to choose if they want to dedicate time to just one endeavor.
Will this change? I hope so, though I have my doubts. I’m fortunate that both my kids list baseball and softball as their favorite sports. I hope any grandkids I might have feel that same passion.
And what about coaches and umpires? Without these folks, we don’t have teams and games. Around here, we always find people to step up and coach, but sometimes it’s a real struggle. Part of that can be that it’s pretty daunting to be the person in charge of a group. That takes a lot of time putting all your ducks in a row, and when you’re volunteering, no matter what sport it is, it can involve a lot of work.
In addition to that, some people are uncomfortable with the potential to make some waves. It doesn’t matter what sport or what level you coach, you will inevitably have to discipline players and show kids that their way is not the right way to do something. Coaching involves a lot of psychology in the end, and that’s not always easy to figure out.
Sometimes I think officiating and umpiring is easier to figure out in the long run than coaching. You can start at younger levels as you learn the rules and nuances of the game and work your way up to higher levels of competition if you wish. There’s a pretty easy path to whatever level you want to work. If you’re happy just working youth ball, that’s fine. There’s more work if you want to move up the ranks, but we need so many in the youth arena, and it’s easy to train someone in the very basics.
Coaching, however, doesn’t have different levels of ease. Sometimes the younger levels are more difficult to coach than the older kids. So it’s not like you can start out at a particular age and work your way up, and that’s where people shy away. There are clinics and classes out there on coaching, and even us grizzled veterans find those helpful and refreshing.
At the end of it, the one thread that might link all these declining numbers is yelling. Nobody enjoys being chewed out. But if you officiate or umpire, you can count on it. On close plays or judgment calls, there are always 50% of the people who are unhappy. Coaches at all ages have people who will question their decisions and too many who will vocalize those questions loudly to anyone within earshot.
Coaches find the need to light a fire under players sometimes too. And the older players get, the more competitive sports become, leading to perhaps more lighting of fires. Maybe some kids can’t handle that, and that’s part of the reason of declining numbers in different sports.
Will yelling stop at sporting events? That seems even less likely than baseball and softball suddenly having issues with too many players at each level. We’ve got to continue to strive to include all kids and encourage them to work hard and diversify their activities and to also work with adults who can be good coaches and officials for those youth activities.
Word of the Week: This week’s word is myrmidon, which means one who unquestioningly follows orders, as in, “The coach appreciated the myrmidons on his team who listened and went about their business to form a winning team.” Impress your friends and confuse your enemies!