Health concerns, increasing costs and competitiveness engender evolution in Arizona youth sports

Hockey is a sport on the rise in Arizona, as the number of children participating has increased by 21 percent over the last year, according to the Arizona Amateur Hockey Association State Registrar. (Photo by Cori Crenshaw/Cronkite News)

Children not that far removed from learning to walk are bouncing and shooting basketballs through Hula Hoops instead of a rim at Beginners Edge Sports Training.

B.E.S.T. is a local youth sports program that provides children as young as 18 months a non-competitive, education-based style of instruction. They learn how to play before wins and losses become a part of the game.

It is one of many changes in youth sports over the years in Arizona. From the number of children participating to education to new rules aimed at improving health, people agree that youth sports are in a transition.

Health concerns
Flag football is on the rise, at least for ONE Sports Nation, a Phoenix-based organization that provides flag football, basketball and other sports programs in three states. Founder Scott McMahon said ONE Sports Nation has seen a decline in its tackle football competition as flag has grown. He believes flag football’s popularity is on the rise because parents are worried about concussions, pointing out that even the NFL is promoting flag football over tackle leagues like Pop Warner.

“I think parents take a little more aggressive position withholding players from tackle,” McMahon said. “You still have young 6- or 7-year-olds playing tackle, but we have seen a decline in our tackle competition as we grow in NFL FLAG.”

The worry over concussions has led U.S. Soccer to adjust its rules to protect players.

The organization recently banned heading for children 10 and under who are on U.S. Soccer-affiliated teams, after a lawsuit was settled in November. Kids between 11 and 13 can only head the ball during practices. The ruling affects 12,000 players under 11 in Arizona, according to the Arizona Youth Soccer Association, a U.S. Soccer affiliate.

“The reality is that kids at that age probably shouldn’t be doing headers anyway,” said Mark Thede, president of the Arizona Youth Soccer Association. “They should be more focused on things on the field. Other aspects of the game, spacing – they have a lot more things to worry about than learning how to head the ball.”

McMahon recommends children stay away from tackle football until seventh or eighth grade.

“You can learn just about everything there is to football other than hitting,” McMahon said about flag football. “There’s no need for that at that age.”

Ultimately, keeping players healthy will depend on the responsibility of the parents and children themselves, McMahon and others have said.

Alliance Youth Sports, an organization offering football and cheerleading programs in the Phoenix area and up north in Prescott and Flagstaff, provides medical insurance for its players. Executive Director Ashley Gonsalves said the protection is included with a child’s registration fee.

“At Alliance we are probably one of the only leagues providing insurance,” Gonsalves said. “If they get hurt on our fields they can file a claim so the money doesn’t come out of the parent’s pocket.”

Gonsalves added that athletic trainers and EMT personnel are on the field at every game. Alliance Youth Sports also holds two coaching clinics every year where coaches undergo a background check, are caught up on their certifications through USA Football and talk about safety, rules, tackling and training.

Cost to play
Money is a factor in every facet of life, sports included.

McMahon said that ONE Sports Nation tries to position itself between recreational/beginner and club level sports. In doing so, McMahon said the goal is to provide a club level experience with a recreation level commitment of time and money.

“A club level commitment takes thousands of dollars for six-plus months of time. We schedule eight- to 10-week seasons,” McMahon said, adding that registration fees for ONE Sports are between $100 and $150, similar to that of recreational level programs.

Youth soccer at the club level can cost quite a bit more. The Arizona Soccer Club has a Thunder Program that costs $795 for its under-7 and under-8 tiers and goes up to $1,295 for high school athletes. Those prices do not include tournament and travel expenses.

“So many things in youth soccer come down to cost because it’s already at the more competitive level for kids who are traveling and playing competitive games,” Thede said. “There’s a pretty steep cost with paying for a trainer, coach, club fees, league fees and those types of things.”

Single or multisport athletes?
McMahon is both an organizer of youth sports and a parent of two young athletes, ages 11 and 15. He said he sees a lot of repeat players coming through the ONE Sports Nation’s Grid Iron Flag Football and Full Court Legends Basketball programs.

It is the single-sport athlete that McMahon said he sees as one of the bigger trends in youth sports.

“More than I remember when I grew up,” he said. “Whether it’s their passion or their desire to get good at that one thing, I don’t know.”

However, McMahon said he believes it is better for athletes to diversify and play more than one sport.

“They’re the most flexible when it comes to talent,” he said. “Each sport has its unique skill set whether it’s basketball, football or track, and it gives kids opportunities to learn different skill sets and apply them across different sports.”

Above all, though, McMahon said he supports the passions of his children, and parents should not force their children to play a particular sport. The best option is to at least expose children to other sports and let them decide, McMahon said.

“At the end of the day you got to support the kids’ interests because whatever keeps them off the PlayStation or Xbox and puts them outside in an active lifestyle is what we want to support.”

Youth sports education
Children can begin playing organized sports as young as 3. However, B.E.S.T. provides a different outlet for sports by removing the competition aspect and focusing on how to catch, run, kick and turn.

Kids also learn teamwork skills and how to position themselves on the playing field.

The company was founded in 2004 and now has 16 teaching locations throughout the Valley.

“We’ve heard a lot of parent testimonials saying ‘If my kid hadn’t come through here they wouldn’t be one of the best,'” B.E.S.T. owner Mitch Goldberg said.

The program doesn’t force sports on children. Rather, kids choose whether to participate in activities, with coaches and parents there to encourage them to play.

“I provide the options,” Goldberg said.

For a sport like football that may include tackling, Goldberg said B.E.S.T. uses foam pads for the kids to practice, but that’s as far as hard contact goes.

Among all the changes to youth sports, McMahon said that in the end the goal is to develop a child as a player and his or her passion for the game(s) in which they participate. He said too much emphasis is put on the scoreboard and winning, especially by parents.

“Some think that if their child wins it’s a reflection of them,” he said. “Some take a while to understand that youth sports isn’t about the win.”

On the scoreboard that is.

“When you see that kid who hasn’t caught a touchdown all season finally pull one in, when you see that one kid who has trouble dribbling finally break away and lay it in, that’s a win,” McMahon said. “That should be a win in everyone’s book.”