As the parents of children who have participated in organized sports in Evanston over the past 10-plus years, we’ve been exposed to the “new world” of the youth sports culture.  It’s a world that is much more competitive and demanding of time, money and parent involvement than the one we grew up in. The stakes are higher.  Kids – and their parents – want to make the top teams, get playing time, get noticed, maybe even get recruited.  The result?  Kids get priced out, edged out, burned out and they quit. Over 70% of kids quit all organized sports by age 13.

Why does it matter?  Because the impact of youth sports is so far reaching. Recent research shows that the benefits of participation in youth sports teams go far beyond health benefits.  Active kids who play sports – or participate in other extracurricular activities – do better in life.  

A 2013 study by the Aspen Institute called “Project Play” found that youth sports participation is critically important both from a public health and a personal success perspective.  Kids who are physically active are less likely to smoke, use drugs, get pregnant or engage in risky behavior. They have up to 40% higher test scores in school, and are 15% more likely to go to college. 

In his book “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” Harvard professor Robert Putnam documents how extracurricular participation and the development of “soft skills” lead to stronger outcomes over the long term. He writes: “Consistent involvement in extracurricular activities is strongly associated with a variety of positive outcomes… including higher grade point averages, lower dropout rates, lower truancy, better work habits, higher educational aspirations, lower delinquency rates, greater self-esteem, more psychological resilience, less risky behavior, more civic engagement (like voting and volunteering) and higher future wages and educational attainment.”

While the pursuit can be sports, music, theater or any extracurricular activity, the important driver of success later in life is the sustained commitment to that pursuit.  In the best-selling book “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” the psychologist Angela Duckworth illuminates the power of “grit,” which she defines as perseverance and passion for long-term goals, a trait that can be developed over time through the right kind of guidance from demanding yet supportive parents, teachers and coaches. Duckworth cites numerous studies that highlight the importance of extracurricular activities – “but only for kids who participate in activities for two years rather than one.”  As Duckworth explains, “the key was that the students had signed up for something, signed up again the following year, and during that time, had made some kind of progress.”  Putnam cites one study that found that kids who are consistently involved in extracurricular activities were 70 percent more likely to go to college than kids who were episodically involved – and 400 percent more likely than kids who were not at all involved.

Evanston Township High School Athletic Director Chris Livatino finds a similar correlation, highlighting that “across every racial sub-group, students who participated in athletics earned significantly higher GPAs than those students not involved in athletics.”  Livatino also notes a small decline in participation in ETHS sports last year, and suggests that one explanation is that many sports require significant pre-high school experience, and that fewer kids, especially on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, are able to afford to these programs.

The decline in youth sports participation can be attributed to a number of reasons, but clearly money has become a major factor. Youth sports participation rates for those at the lowest income levels are about half of those at higher income levels.  In many sports, multi-season, tryout-based travel teams with professional coaches and high fees provide the highest probability path to making a high school team.

We at Evanston Soccer Association (Team Evanston and Eleven United) are committed to increasing participation in our soccer programs by partnering with the broader Evanston community to enable greater affordability and accessibility for all of our kids.  In addition to increasing financial aid, we are also committed to the ongoing training of our coaches so that they can better serve as positive mentors for our youth, and to investing in upgrades to Evanston fields and facilities.  With that in mind, we are actively involved in supporting the Robert Crown Community Center project.  Not only is the project critical for the strength and viability of own club and other sports organizations, it also offers the opportunity to foster more “free play” in the community.  We strongly encourage our colleagues, businesses and other organizations in Evanston to pitch in to ensure that the new Robert Crown Community Center becomes a reality so that all of our kids – and adults – have an equal opportunity at a better, healthier life.

Mr. Berkley and Mr. Gallun, both Evanston residents, are Board members of the Evanston Soccer Association