Youth Should be Served

December 26, 2013

A half-century ago, youth sports were not well organized. Children directed most of their own games, playing each sport in its season, moving from touch football in the side yard to basketball in the driveway to baseball in the vacant lot where an apartment building now stands. They walked or rode their bikes to the venues, they brought their own equipment, they chose up sides and they agreed upon the playing rules and ground rules.

Even if young people played on a community team, they spent more time in pickup games on makeshift fields, courts and diamonds than they did in uniforms at the groomed settings of the formal youth league games.

Gradually, the leagues multiplied and the ability groupings stratified. Elite teams were created consisting of the more talented kids, who were really just more mature for their age; and they were provided with the most games, the longest trips and the largest trophies. It didn’t take long for the other players to feel second class and to drop out of one sport or all sports. In time, even some of the “good” players succumbed to overuse injuries and emotional burnout.

By the time most students reached the earliest grades for school sports, many had already found different ways to spend their time. It is often cited and well-documented that, today, 80 to 90 percent of all youth who ever started playing organized sports have stopped doing so by age 13. Before high school.

So it occurs to me that school districts should have both altruistic and selfish reasons to rethink their approach to junior high/middle school sports, which is now to engage students too late and offer them too little. Schools might be able to provide a better experience for the youngsters and create an earlier and stronger relationship with the philosophies of educational athletics at the junior high/middle school level, and that ultimately will strengthen high school athletic programs.

This pursuit will take great care in order to assure that schools themselves do not make the same mistakes we have seen in overzealous youth sports programs. We will have to find the balance where multi-sport experiences are encouraged so middle school students can experiment with new sports and discover what they might really like and be good at, while at the same time provide enough additional contests that interscholastic programs are a more attractive option than non-school programs that may always allow more contests than school people will allow within an educational setting.

Cheering for Sportsmanship

July 31, 2018

(This blog first appeared on on January 8, 2013.)

I try to start each new school year at the Michigan Interscholastic Press Association summer camp at Michigan State University. I talk briefly about who the MHSAA is and what it does; and then two or three dozen high school newspaper editors and writers ask me questions; and in doing so, they give me clues to what’s going on in our schools and what’s important to our students.

Several years ago, when I opened the session to questions, one young man asked: “Mr. Roberts, what’s your job?” I paused, and then said, “I guess I’m the head cheerleader for high school sports in Michigan.”

So then this precocious student asked: “Okay, what do you cheer for?”  With a briefer pause, this is some of what I said:

  • I cheer for sportsmanship that’s not merely good, but great.

  • I cheer for sportsmanship, not gamesmanship.

  • I cheer for playing by the rules, both the letter and the spirit.

  • I cheer for maximum effort to try to win each and every contest.

  • I don’t cheer for winning at any cost; I do cheer for learning at every opportunity.

  • I cheer for losing with grace and for winning with even greater grace, with humility and modesty.

  • I cheer for the lessons of victory and the even greater lessons of defeat.