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Youth Sports: A System in Dire Need of Direction

When a sport is transformed into a highly competitive, win-at-all-costs activity, with one's parents foaming at the mouth while yelling at refs, who wants to play anymore?
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Once upon a time..

I start with this phrase as though I'm going to tell a children's story -- because when I tell kids today about a time when they were free to go out and play on their own without official tryouts, bullying coaches or screaming parents on the sidelines -- well, these kids really think I'm truly telling them a fairy tale.

And yet, it wasn't that long ago when that was indeed how children in the United States discovered sports. They, along with their neighborhood friends, went outside and played and soaked up the pure joy and freedom that comes with playing sports for fun.

But of course, those days are long gone, having been overrun by parents' zeal to ensure that their kid gets a leg up on their athletic peers, to perhaps rise to a level where one's son or daughter will become a professional athlete or, at the very least, earn a college athletic scholarship.

But for the vast majority of American student-athletes, according to the NCAA, less than 4 percent of all high school varsity athletes will ever be good enough to make a college team at either the Division I, II or III level. That's just making the team. The percentage of kids who earn a full or even just a partial athletic scholarship is dramatically smaller.

If so few high school varsity athletes will ever make a college team, why are sports so valuable to our kids?

Because they learn key lessons in life: specifically, how to be a team player, how to work towards a common goal with teammates, how to cope with both winning and losing, how to deal with unexpected adversity, how to be coached by someone other than one's parent and, of course, the overall benefit of being physically fit.

These benefits are not new. They have been around for a long, long time. But somehow, we as adults have lost our way with our kids in sports. Parents today have reached a point where they need some real guideposts to help us find their way again.

What strikes me as very distressful is that the world of sports parenting is only becoming more and more confusing. There is no roadmap. High school athletic directors rarely have the time to oversee and "coach" their coaches. Literally anyone can put out a shingle and start, own and operate a travel team. Too many parents are physically threatening officials and refs who work their kids' games.

So how we can stop the madness?

In my opinion, here's what we need:

Have President Obama Or The President's Council For Physical Fitness Set Up Federal Guidelines Regarding Youth Sports Instruction

We Americans take tremendous pride in our sports traditions.

But curiously, we don't offer any guidelines to sports parents today about key questions: What's the right age for my child to specialize in one sport? Or should they not specialize at all? Is it important for my child to be on a travel team? What is the truth about letting my son play football and the risk of concussions? Girls suffer five times more ACL injuries than boys -- can we do anything to protect them?

It sure would be nice if the President, a noted sports fan and a sports parent himself, would appoint a blue-ribbon of experts to help us.

And Don't Just Talk In Generic Points. Be Specific.

There are lot of wonderful glossy reports and white papers that say that youth sports is a mess in this country, that there's an obesity problems with kids and so on.

Yes. We know that. We're living it. Forget the overview stuff.

Give parents, coaches and kids real specific directions and instructions.

License And Certify Travel Teams

That means real regulation of everything from who the coaches are, if they are trained in CPR, background checks and, most importantly, has anyone with real credentials trained the travel team coaches to be a coach? Just being a former player does not qualify for you to train or work with kids.

Let's also have transparency about the tryout fees, the costs of being on the team, the coaches' salaries and let's discuss guarantees on my kid's playing time. And for the elite travel teams, let's provide real stats on how many kids on those teams are actually offered college scholarships, from what colleges, how much and so on.

Putting The Fun Back Into The Games

There are all sorts of surveys about why kids these days are quitting sports. But the one common theme throughout all those polls is that sports is no longer fun for the youngster. When a sport is transformed into a highly competitive, win-at-all-costs activity, with one's parents foaming at the mouth while yelling at refs, who wants to play anymore?

Ironically, these kinds of surveys about "fun in sports" didn't exist twenty-five years ago. Why? Because kids back then were having fun.

This blog post is part of a series curated by the editors of HuffPost's The Tackle on the importance of youth sports. To see all the other posts in the series, click here.

Join the conversation on Twitter and tell us why you feel sports are important for youth with #TheTackle.