Why are we leaving kids behind?

Bill Bowerman wrote, in his 1967 book Jogging, that the system for sports in the United States discriminates against people over the age of thirty and even the young. He stated, quite bluntly, "Professionals unwittingly discriminate further in that they spend little time on the youngsters with small talent or with those who do not care to compete." Fifty years later, not much has changed.

We now have clubs sports for youngsters, but the presumption in the clubs is that the competition is the important feature. At the six year-old level, we have, as a country, decent participation rates. Somewhere around junior high school, though, we lose kids by the bushel, both boys and girls.

Two reason account for two-thirds of the loss. First, the smaller of the components, injury,  accounts for 27 percent of the drop for girls, 29 percent of the drop for boys. That's a quarter of our youth athletes, physically broken. I'm going to get to this later in the week, so stay tuned.

The primary reason though, as any follower of Coach Bruce Brown will attest to, is that the athletes are not having fun. His DVD presentation, The Proper Role of Parents in Athletics, is pure gold and hits at this exact point. For more documentation, we can go to EPSN magazine. They're infographic shows the same thing. 39 percent of boys, 38 percent of girls, say they quit sports because they weren't having fun.

It's not just sour grapes for the benchwarmers. Most kids are not going to win a college scholarship and they know this probably fairly early in their sports careers, so their sole motivation is the pleasure they derive from the activity. I've watched too many cross country races with the kids at the back trying just as hard as the kids in the front to believe that it's about winning for the kids.

What I see are kids who are having fun, working hard, and have people around them - fellow athletes and adults - who respect their effort. At the end of those high school careers, they lose that support to a large extent. They leave the team and the coach to go to college. Even for the ones that stay close, they lose the connection to the team, looking on as an outsider. I suspect that the idea that running is an activity to be enjoyed gets obscured by the chase to the finish line.

And those are the ones that stayed in the sports pipeline. It doesn't take into account the large numbers that drop out from first grade to high school. (I'm disregarding, for the moment, the socio-economic issues that surround sports participation.)

For the running community, this presents both a challenge and a great opportunity. The opportunity is to create systems that will encourage those kids (and it wouldn't hurt to get the parents moving, either!) to stick with the sport, and by doing so, grow the base of the sport. Ideally this effort would start long before organized sports and work around and enhance the usual activities of growing up.

The challenge is that we continue to view running through the lens of sport, and not activity. In the words of Vince Lombardi, "Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” That's the essence of professional sports, except we as a nation have decreed that all sports shall be treated as professional sports, even when the athletes are 12 year-olds.

This message was reinforced recently by a new track club in the area, the Confluence Elite. The team was set up by Mike Collins, the coach for the LCSC Warriors. Coach Collins is a tremendous positive force in the community, and not just the running community. The Confluence Elite is a USATF team, and the focus is on training and improving for competition. The coaches associated with it are top-notch and, in talking to a couple of the runners, the kids are having fun. The purpose of the club is well-defined and I'm a big supporter of both it and the coaches involved.

Still, I think that this might represent a missed opportunity. One of the clubs that I follow is the Alice Springs Running Walking Club. Located in the middle of the outback, the town has a history of participation in sports, at all ages. Their constitution makes it clear:

A. to promote and encourage running and walking as sports, as a means of healthy exercise and the improvement of community fitness for individuals of all ages and abilities;

It's not until the fourth point on the statement of objectives do you find the development of talent.

They follow along the Lydiard model for a club. Arthur Lydiard was the inspiration for Bowerman's jogging program in Eugene. Designed to be inclusive of all, it was less sports oriented than activity based. The distinction is important. Sports ultimately are about winning, against yourself and the competition. Activities are open to all and the competition gets replaced by camaraderie.

The group of ultrarunners I hung out with in San Diego exemplified this. We'd head out for group runs in the Cuyamaca Mountains or out to the desert. We didn't run for good health and none of us were going to win much more than an age group medal. Instead, we shared the experiences, and had some fun while we covered miles.

People do those things that give them pleasure. I'd like to see clubs that applied more attention to the act of running as a way of doing something fun rather than see people, kids or adults, in constant training cycles. Some of the local running clubs come close, but are adult based, and most of the chatter is directed at training for races. 

There seems to be a gap there, one that I think would be important to fill, if someone knew how. I sure don't. Maybe it's time to create a different type of club, one that takes the approach that running, in and of itself, can be fun and encourages the kids to use the running as a component of play.

That, frankly, is a daunting thought.

A fair number of you read and never comment, but I would really like to hear your opinions on this, so please, use the comments or send me an email.