I was speaking at John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Canton, Massachusetts, a couple weeks ago. I arrived early and decided to take a walk.
There was a Little League field nearby. It was cold, and a December frost lay on the grass. I spotted a sign on the chain-link fence beside one of the dugouts.
The sign, posted by the Canton Little League, read:
•These are kids.
•This is a game.
•The coaches volunteer.
•The umpires are human.
•You don't play for the Red Sox.
I had to laugh, especially at the crack about the Red Sox. But I think the sign is a good reminder to everyone connected with youth sports — kids, parents, coaches, the folks who run the leagues — what is important about the games.
First, kids who play are just that . . . kids. They are not mini professional athletes. So youth sports leagues and coaches should take it easy on them. Kids don't need long schedules and lots of faraway games or high-pressure tournaments.
Adults should try to set up youth leagues so more kids play with and against kids from nearby schools and neighborhoods. They should make it easier for kids to play a sport for just a few months so that they can try other sports. Kids shouldn't play one sport year-round.
And everyone should stop worrying about which team wins or loses. A friend of mine who coached a lot of youth teams once told me, "When you coach kids, it's not how many you win or lose, it's how many sign up for next season."
According to the Aspen Institute's latest "State of Play" report, fewer kids are signing up. Research indicates a smaller percentage of kids ages 6 to 12 (37 percent) are playing team sports on a regular basis than in 2011 (42 percent).
The aim of youth sports should be to have fun, learn some skills and enjoy being part of a team. When we lose sight of those simple goals, the games suffer, and the kids stay away.
Maybe in 2018 every field or gym where kids play should have a sign like the one in Canton. All you would have to do is change the name of the team.
Bowen writes the sports opinion column for KidsPost. He is the author of 22 sports books for kids.