Costly Team Sports Put "Life Skills" Beyond Poor Kids' Reach

May 21, 2015

For many kids, youth  sports is a time to learn things like teamwork, goal setting, time management-skills that often prove valuable off the field and in work settings later in life. But for kids who can’t afford the fees associated with team sports or the equipment or the uniforms or the transportation to away games, these learning opportunities are few and far between. As we look this week at the growing opportunity gap between rich and poor kids in their first decade of life, we turn to Daniel Gould. He’s director of the institute for the study of youth sports and a professor of applied sports psychology at Michigan State University. He spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello.
 

What else do kids learn in youth sports?

There are a number of valuable lessons kids can learn through participation in not only sports but other extracurricular activities that they can’t learn in the classroom. We call those "life skills" and they can range from goal setting to dealing with their emotions. There’s a whole range of factors.

What about kids whose parents don’t have the resources to sign them up for some team sports?

We’re very concerned about that issue, and especially since 2008 with the recession, there’s not as many publicly-funded sports programs. So if we know kids get benefits from participation in sports and they don’t get participate, they’re not going to get the benefits. If you come from a middle-class family, your parents can probably afford pay-for-play programs or travel teams, but if you’re from the inner-city, or from a single-parent household, and your parents may not have the money for that, and they’re limiting the rec center hours, or school programs aren’t as well-funded as they were 30 years ago—that really concerns us.

What about the argument that kids can play with sticks and rocks for the woods for free, and if they’re playing with each other, can they still learn those same skills?

A number of people are concerned that we’re over organizing youth sports in general and we’re not giving kids chances to play on their own so that could be an advantage for kids. However things have changed over 30 or 40 years. It’s probably unrealistic, from a liability sense, that parents can just push their kids out the back door. So we’d like kids to have exposure to both types of settings—free play and structured sports.

Are youth sports getting more expensive in general?

I would say yes, because a lot of times kids get to be 9, 10, 11, and if they want to continue with the sport, they have to join the travel team, and that costs money. We’ve also seen a decline in spending on recreation programs. In cities like Detroit, the recreation centers that are being sold are being picked up by nonprofits. It’s not just community sports, it’s school sports. Many schools have had to go to pay for play where you need to pay $100 or $150 to have your child participate in basketball this season or cross country or whatever it may be.

What needs to be done to ensure that low-income kids are able to participate in things like this.

We probably need to invest in youth-sports programs so kids hopefully will join them and become healthier. Secondly, it’s a right thing to do. Kids can learn a lot of values and skills when they’re engaged in a safe activity that has desirable effects, it’s a really good way to help kids, for example, have an alternative to joining the gang if they’re coming from a poor neighborhood.