The Let’s Move! campaign launched by First Lady Michelle Obama in 2010 is one of many — but certainly the highest profile — initiatives aimed at tackling the rising epidemic of childhood obesity. One of the best ways to get kids off the couch — perhaps — away from all their electronic gadgets and interest in physical fitness is through youth sports. But as it turns out, finding opportunities to play sports “for fun” or for the purpose of staying in shape, are becoming limited.
Twenty years ago, the path for young athletes was quite simple. It started at an early age with pick-up games in the neighborhood. When kids were ready for an organized sport, a mom or a dad could sign up to coach a group of friends in Montgomery County Department of Recreation league and when — or even if — they outgrew that, it was time for high school varsity tryouts.
Those who weren’t cut out for high school competition, or even elite-level athletes who were more focused on one sport but wanted to continue playing another at a lesser level with his or her friends, could stick with the recreational leagues as an outlet.
“[High school] was the highest level you could attain,” Winston Churchill High School girls soccer coach Haroot Hakopian said. “Maybe the top 10 percent or so would think about playing club.”
These days youth sports are rapidly heading toward club or nothing, especially in the middle and high school age brackets. Private organizations, even the few that offer recreational level teams, have taken over to the point that the Montgomery County Department of Recreation, once the go-to for low-cost recreational leagues in just about every sport, has cut everything but its basketball leagues. Youth programs are now geared toward summer camps and instructional sessions, said Judy Stiles, who is a recreation specialist with the organization.
“We don’t do [much] youth sports anymore because of all the private organizations now,” said Trish Gill of the Montgomery County Department of Recreation. “We were all competing for the same kids so we stopped doing it. We would love to bring it back if we felt like we could make a successful program.”
But the truth is, that probably won’t happen because recreational sports are dying, several Montgomery County high school coaches agreed. There is a good chance many talented athletes might fall through the cracks as well, Hakopian said, because not everyone can afford the membership costs for travel ball, even for non-profit organizations, as it typically can reach over $1,000 per year while MCDR league basketball is $95 for county residents.
Several factors have led to this current trend, including the business aspect of youth sports — organizations have found a way to make their sports year-round, forcing many kids to choose one particular sport at an early age — and the pursuit of college scholarships. The latter is another reason young athletes feel pressured to specialize. In turn, this has set a new standard for athletes looking to even make the high school team. Or even the middle school squad for that matter.
“As the years go on, as you get into fifth grade, it seems like the options [for recreational sports] constrict,” said Bethesda parent Becky Wiese, the wife of Georgetown University men’s soccer coach Brian Wiese, whose three children of elementary- and middle-school age run the gamut of involvement in youth sports. “You’re either both feet into one sport or you’re going to have less options. It worries me as [my son] Ted gets into junior high, it’s harder to find a team for each of the sports he wants to play.”
It’s a double-edged sword, too, because in order to build their high school programs it is customary for coaches to reach out to students in their feeder schools and plant the seed, Northwest High School softball coach and assistant football coach Kevin Corpuz said. And in order for these young athletes to be prepared for high school sports, they’re encouraged to pursue a high level of competition in those years leading up to ninth grade.
But, that’s also why Hakopian said he hasn’t joined in the trend of high school coaches taking over middle school teams. While his program certainly benefits from the influx of freshmen with tremendous technique and high soccer IQ, he said he doesn’t want student-athletes to feel pressured to play for him in middle school or to be dissuaded from trying out for the high school team.
“I think we’ve become overall entirely too structured,” Hakopian said. “One of the sports the [United States] is the best in the world at is basketball. And those pickup games and rec leagues are famous for producing some of the best athletes ever. So, I think we sort of have it backwards. What we’re missing in all the sports is that love. That, just, ‘I love the sport and I don’t care how good I am.’ Little by little we’re eliminating the kids who want to play just for fun and have no particular avenue.”