Opinion: There is a Colossal Problem With Youth Sports and Activities in NJ Today
I am the father of three boys — ages six, four, and two. And holy guacamole — all of a sudden, our life has become insanely busy this spring. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wind down, social activities are clearly ramping back up. Just this week alone, we have two Little League baseball games, two baseball practices, two scouting events, three after-school events, and two church events on the calendar.
In the fall, we'll do it all over again, balancing Cub Scouts and PTA with flag football and instructional soccer. Woo!
My wife and I are admittedly young parents, just getting involved in this wild world of youth sports and activities. But it has become increasingly clear after talking to the leaders of these organizations that there is a significant issue brewing in the wide world of youth sports and activities. And it puts the very survival of these programs at risk.
To be fair, there are a number of reasonable concerns and complaints I could write about here. Each program has its quirks and complications.
But all of them seem to have one critical challenge these days. Parent volunteers.
Sports leagues need coaches, managers, referees, and commissioners.
Non-athletic activities need instructors and facilitators, organizers and overseers.
More broadly, our children need and deserve leaders. Mentors. Community role models.
Yet every program out there - from baseball to soccer to football to scouting to the PTA - seems to be chronically lacking in family engagement and leadership. Some of them are literally begging for help. But those pleas often fall on deaf ears. And yes, that is a colossal problem.
This is a complicated matter, for sure. I believe there are several reasons why parents do not (or can not) get involved with their kids' activities.
--Too busy... There are more two-working-parent and single-parent households now than ever before. As many fellow millennial parents know, that can make it incredibly difficult to juggle work and home responsibilities. Adding the time and logistical commitment of a leadership role can be overwhelming. Or even physically impossible.
--Not interested... If a child's interests differ widely from your own, it can obviously be difficult to drum up the desire or passion to volunteer.
--Scared of the commitment or position... A fair concern, especially since enlisting with some organizations can carry some heavy responsibility.
--Scared of other parents... Oh boy. Some parents are truly terrifying. Especially when it comes to cheering on and supporting their young athlete. And things can progress far beyond "personality conflicts". When unwarranted criticism toward a coach or official spirals toward outright abuse, what motivation remains for a parent volunteer to continue in that role? There's also the concern of some parents being very clique-y, which can be equally isolating and troublesome.
--Disorganization... Why donate your precious time to an organization that is a complete mess? (I have to admit, I am guilty as charged on this one - I am very picky about who gets my time, energy, and money.) Unfortunately, disorganized groups need volunteers — people power — the most. And so the vicious cycle spirals downward.
Do I really need to elaborate on the catastrophic outcome of no leadership and no volunteers?
Programs and offerings diminish.
And they don't come back.
Of course, there's no easy blanket answer to the demise of parent enthusiasm and volunteerism. Other than a suggestion to just do it. It's just part of the game. Dive in, find a way to volunteer that's a good fit. For just one sport, activity, organization, or program. (To start, at least.) It is incredibly rewarding. And beneficial for you, your family, and your community. A win-win-win.
Go mow and weed a playing field. Or run the concession stand. Run a fundraiser. Chair a committee. Step up as an assistant coach. Or scorekeeper. Or equipment manager.
In a past life, I briefly worked fundraising for a non-profit's capital campaign. And I learned the golden rule of philanthropy: You can give your Time, your Talent, and/or your Treasure. Think broadly about the assets you have in each category that you can contribute. Get creative if you have to.
And don't hesitate to reach out to organization leaders to see how you can help. They'll almost certainly be enthusiastic to have your support. (And if not, refer to some of the "causes" listed above.)
If every parent out there committed to volunteering for just one activity — just do one thing — this problem would fade significantly. And our communities and children would be mutual benefactors in that success.