Young people who play organized sports are healthier, all things considered, than their more sedentary peers. They form lasting friendships and learn to deal with adversity in productive ways. They become time management experts out of necessity. Young athletes build confidence and good habits that can stay with them for a lifetime. Leadership qualities that start in Little League or Pop Warner football often flourish in adult pursuits, in careers, the military or simple family dynamics. Sports teach the value of teamwork.

There is another intangible worth mentioning. For many, the very concept of Pacifica is draped in the uniforms worn by student-athletes at Oceana or Terra Nova high schools. In a very real way, Shark and Tiger successes lift spirits and bind the community like nothing else on the coast. Whatever our differences, we all want to see our kids succeed, and there are few better measurements than in the collective environment of team sports.

So we stand to lose an awful lot if fewer kids play sports in the years to come. Unfortunately, the anecdotal evidence on the coast is troubling. As our reporting reveals, some of the largest youth and teen sports organizations on the Coastside are losing kids quickly. That trend began before the pandemic, and now that kids have gotten used to doing other things while leagues were suspended, they will have to be convinced to return.

It’s not all bad news. It’s true that coaches and administrators in local football, baseball and hockey leagues despair about the lack of kids coming out to play, but more methodical statistical evidence is somewhat mixed. The California Interscholastic Federation, which governs high school sports in the state, crowed in 2019 that 814,004 high school kids played organized sports in the state. That represented an increase for the seventh consecutive year. The numbers were especially heartening for girls; 50,000 more girls in the state’s schools were playing organized sports in 2019 than in 2011.

But that isn’t the entire story. The Aspen Institute says part of the problem is structural. For example, we lose 3 million young baseball players in the transition from Little League to high school, simply because opportunities are fewer. And, as any parent can tell you, playing organized sports can be expensive. As a result, the Aspen Institute found kids in low-income households were much less likely to play sports. The focus on increasingly competitive (and expensive) travel teams turns off some kids as well.

These days, kids have choices. The digital devices we all hold provide endless diversion, for better or worse. It takes 10 seconds to post to Instagram and the gratification can be instant. Athletics is more demanding, but the rewards more lasting. We should encourage our kids to chase those rewards by making the games more fun, by investing in fields and uniforms and coaches trained in maintaining a positive environment. We have more to lose than the games themselves.

— Clay Lambert

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