It’s all fun and games until Iowa kids learn how to win.
Then it’s about the power, business and lifestyle of youth sports.
The Register’s first of six entries into a summer-long examination of youth sports in Iowa goes back to the start of every athletic endeavor — the decision to participate.
Iowa parents don’t expect that tossing a ball around the backyard with their toddler will directly lead to Olympic glory, but organization, time and money have quickly turned recreation into a competition.
The person in charge of high school girls’ sports state-wide has seen a shift in youth sports culture, from his time as a coach and game official to his last six years at the helm.
“Youth sports are good when done in moderation and kept in perspective,” said Mike Dick, executive director of the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union (IGHSAU). “It scares me when I see it overdone and pushed on them.”
Active kids in Iowa are still easy to find.
Keeping them participating in numbers is more difficult.
Even if rural Iowa T-ball isn’t as hotly contested as the state high school track meet he’s coaching, Drew Clevenger knows the competition will ramp up as each year passes.
The St. Ansgar varsity football and track coach is a father of three, with an 8-year-old girl playing softball and a 6-year-old boy who’s starting his baseball career.
“I want my kids to enjoy sports,” Clevenger said. “So whenever they’re ready, both me and my wife will encourage them and work with them.”
He wants his kids out on the field for the obvious positives that organized sports can provide: social development, motor skills, psychological well-being and physical activity.
Iowans sign up for those benefits at a greater ratio than do kids across the country. But a 2013 article from the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine (OAJSM) shows that nationally, 70 to 80 percent will quit sports by the time they are 15 years old.
“Many times, youth sports are just winning and losing,” Dick said. “It scares me to death when I see 7- and 8-year-olds on an elite traveling team, with their starting lineup picked out for the next eight years. It leaves kids out, it makes kids get discouraged and quit — and when later on they grow or develop, they’ve already given up.”
The National Federation of State High School Associations lists Iowa 19th in total athletic participation, despite being 30th in the nation in population.
Iowa gets high marks in girls’ golf, wrestling, baseball and softball.
But while the state’s population has grown at a 1.4 percent rate over the past three years, according to census data, Iowa’s total participation number in high schools is down more than 16,000, or roughly 10 percent — from 156,972 to 140,939 — in the past five years.
“We try to make kids realize that athletics in Iowa are special to be a part of,” Dick said. “It filters down generations, and that contributes greatly to what we’re able to do. It’s a long-term culture thing, and our hope is that it continues.”
Participation numbers nationwide for “Generation Z” — individuals born since 2000, for the purposes of a Physical Activity Council study — have come back positive, especially in outdoor and team sports.
The council’s study measures rates of sports and recreation participation.
Colorado and Utah were the most active states. Iowa joined border states Nebraska and Wisconsin in the study’s second tier — those ranked ninth through 16th — in healthy activity levels.
In Iowa, around 36 percent of respondents said they participated in a high-intensity sport or activity at least 151 times a year.
More than 80 percent of those ages 6-12 in Iowa are physically active.
So why are kids still peeling off when it comes to organized sports?
Negative factors have cut teenage numbers as high-level and high-dollar competition has spread across the state.
“It’s starting to adversely affect us,” Dick said. “I’m from the old school. I’d like to see kids be in multiple sports, do music, be in speech, church activities, maybe even have dinner with Mom and Dad once or twice a week. We think that diversity and being in lots of things helps kids become better citizens.”
Club sports and AAU options keep growing, and so do injuries, stress levels and expectations. The OAJSM says those factors have caused attrition that has less than 20 percent of high school students nationwide still playing team sports.
“There’s good and bad with everything,” Harlan activities director and boys’ basketball coach Mitch Osborn said. “The good part of it is that there are tons of opportunities for kids. But we are starting to see those things that are pulling kids away. The non-school teams have so much personal time that a lot of times, there’s false hope given.”
More of those concerns will be examined in the coming weeks of this six-part summer series.
For each family that might feel jilted or left behind by the competitiveness of youth sports, there is another that relishes the experience and stability that Iowa’s culture provides.
The state shows long-term positive results associated with sports and extracurricular activities, including a 2009 study conducted by the University of Northern Iowa and funded by the IGHSAU on the impact of participation 10 to 20 years after high school.
A survey of Iowa high school graduates from between 1988 and 1998 correlated extracurricular participation in Iowa with greater income, academic performance and long-term physical and emotional health.
“The more they are involved and active, they’re definitely going to do a better job in the classroom,” Osborn said. “And we have to be forthright; there are way more opportunities to get academic scholarships than athletic ones.”
Lance Van Vleet of Indianola saw firsthand the risk and reward of youth sports.
Once his son and daughter showed a focus and affinity for sports, Van Vleet started a traveling team and built a practice structure at home so they could practice baseball and softball year-round.
“We discovered they were very competitive kids that had a knack for sports,” Van Vleet said. “We didn’t have to set expectations for them. They did it themselves, because they wanted to be as good as they could be. We never had to push our kids at all. Never wanted to.
“As long as they were active and having fun, we took them to where they wanted to go.”
Daughter Abbie was a three-time all-state pitcher at Indianola and currently plays at Simpson College.
Son Alex blew out his elbow playing high school football and couldn’t play baseball again.
“The amount of money we spent on travel, lessons, equipment … we wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Van Vleet said. “It was all a great family experience.”
The culture that turns off some youths can make others thrive.
“It can get very competitive, and that’s what my kids loved about it, and that’s what I loved about it,” Van Vleet said. “But not everybody’s built the same way.”
That drive and pursuit of competition in the state can also be attributed to environment. The OAJSM plainly cites suburban-based Caucasians as the majority shareholders of organized youth sports, a population that dominates Iowa’s demographic breakdown.
But there still has to be a reason families are driving out to all those Little League games.
“Every time we survey, the No. 1 reason kids say they participate is to have fun,” Dick said. “I’m not sure with some of the youth sports that by the time they get to high school, they’re really having fun.”
‘ABOUT THE JOURNEY’
Osborn’s experience has come in communities that have maximized youth participation. He has been at Harlan since 1998.
The Cyclones are known for utilizing multi-sport athletes to achieve outstanding results.
“Sometimes, as coaches, we put so much pressure on kids,” Osborn said. “But we can’t be overly selfish, and we have to share.”
There’s winning on the field, and there’s winning with people.
Harlan has managed to do both, as evidenced by 12 state football championships with only one NFL alumnus.
“We’ve got kids busy doing extra things, going to camps, they’ve got jobs and they’re trying to be kids, too,” Osborn said. “There has to be a happy medium to things.
“Winning titles is great, but it’s more about the journey.”
Discussions on the future of Iowa’s youth sports scene could lean toward money, specialization, youth camps, injuries and the parents involved.
Kids learning from sports has always been part of the equation.
And it all begins with the decision to participate.
“We should think of sports as an extension of the classroom,” Dick said. “They’re learning skills and traits and characteristics not behind a desk, but on a track, in a pool or on a basketball floor.
“It’s supposed to be teaching them for the rest of their lives.”
YOUTH SPORTS BY THE NUMBERS
19: Iowa’s rank in high school athletics participation by state. Iowa is 30th in overall population.
0.2: Percentage of high school athletes nationwide that will achieve elite athletic status in adulthood.
3: Estimated number of Iowans currently playing high school football that will go on to play in the NFL.
69: Percentage of parents that pay more than $100 in fees for their children to play school sports.
16,033: Fewer recorded Iowa high school athletics participants in 2012-13 school year than in 2007-08.
92: Percent of respondents to a 2009 University of Northern Iowa study that said athletics made their school experience “more positive.”
— Sources: Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine, Physical Activity Council and University of Northern Iowa
EDITOR’S NOTE: We’ve generated a lot of feedback on this project so far. And as our reporting continues, we want even more. Part 2 is titled “Money.” How do costs of participation affect your family’s decisions? Has the price of success grown over the years? Are these costs fair? Where can Iowa kids find the best values? Drop us an email about the financial angle. Contact reporter Chris Cuellar (firstname.lastname@example.org) or reach out to Register sports editor Chad Leistikow (email@example.com). Below, Chris and Chad introduce the series and its goals.