During this pandemic, I have heard many people talking about children losing out on their opportunity to play sports. I thought this was a good time to share Esko Community Education’s blog about youth sports. Sometimes we need a reminder about our perspective on sports.

Sport is defined as “An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.”

I wonder how many kids still think of sports as entertainment? Physical activity? Fun? If you haven’t asked your child in a while if they are enjoying participating in sports, it’s time to ask.

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Research screams the numbers to us each day. Kids are dropping like flies out of youth sports. Why?

Faithful readers of this blog know that my kids are in their 20s, so I can speak with a lot of experience under my belt when it comes to children in sports. I raised two boys who were part of many sports teams, from baseball to soccer, cross country, football and hockey.

Both of my boys played youth hockey from age 4 to age 15 in Hermantown. One was cut trying out for the high school team in 10th grade. The other still plays at college on a hockey scholarship. I have seen both sides of the story, and I can tell you the secret to success in high school sports. The magic that allows Hermantown to produce successful teams and multiple college scholarship winners is in the numbers.

The more kids a youth program can register, the more successful the high school program.

But getting kids to register isn’t the only magic. They need to stick around. If each grade has 15-20 kids consistently playing a sport throughout their primary grades, the five to seven kids who make the high school team will be highly skilled. This will happen automatically. No one needs to go to camps, play year round or be on traveling teams. The law of numbers will prevail. Give children equal opportunity throughout their younger years, and you will have a great high school program.

So why isn’t this happening? Well ... parents get involved. The ones who “know” their child is a savant at age 10 and needs to play at a higher level. Thus specialty teams and traveling teams.

When my youngest son played hockey, he showed himself to be one of the more naturally talented players early on. Many of his friends' parents would pay their kids for the number of goals they got in a game. Sometimes I would see kids get paid (yes, with money!) for their efforts on the ice. Sadly, I also saw kids in tears when parents told them they didn’t work hard enough or score enough goals to get their monetary reward that day.

My husband and I challenged our son in a completely different way. We asked him if he could get an assist for every single person on his team. This made him a selfless player. It also gave him a different way of looking at the game. He developed vision on the ice and opportunities for scoring that many other kids never did as they were too busy shooting at the net every time they touched the puck. He also had an incredible sense of pride when he helped players score their first goal. I was proud of his effort.

As the years progressed, I watched the kids who were pressured, and many times paid for their efforts, drop from rosters. They were no longer having fun. Shouldn’t playing on a team be fun?

My advice for parents is to stop thinking of sports as a way to pay for college. If you took all the money for registration and camps and invested it, your kid would likely go to college and have a down payment for their first house. Sports are not vocation. Sports are fun. Sports are a way to meet friends. Sports give kids a sense of belonging. Sports teach compromise, hard work and cooperation. Sports teach a love of physical activity and fitness. That’s enough!

I will end with one of my favorite memories. One of my son's teammates was playing in a mini mite hockey tournament. One child on my husband's team went out for his shift and spent the entire time skating with a player from the other team. The buzzer went off (signaling a line change) and that player came to the bench saying, “I made a new friend!”

The next shift change, this same player went back out searching for his friend, and they spent two full minutes skating around, chatting away. This time when the boy came to the bench, he exclaimed, “I LOVE that kid!” My husband smiled. What a great day for that player, and he never even scored a goal.

"Community Education Corner," published weekly in the Pine Journal, features news from Community Education programs in Carlton County.