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How to navigate today’s wide world of youth sports

Jonathan Malloy (left) led an Ultimate Frisbee clinic at Diamond Fields in Lexington.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

James Loftus found himself in a difficult spot when his son Henry asked if he could play Ultimate Frisbee this fall. There was one problem: Henry was already signed up to play soccer on a travel team, and James had volunteered to be the assistant coach.

“He played soccer since he was in kindergarten,” said Loftus, who lives in Newton. “He enjoys it but never seemed to be passionate about it. This year he asked, ‘Can I play Frisbee instead?’ ”

Loftus and his wife looked around for an Ultimate Frisbee league and found one in Lexington. Henry joined, Loftus gracefully stepped down from his soccer coaching position, and since then, 13-year-old Henry has become hooked on his new sport, so much so that he even joined an Ultimate Frisbee club at his middle school.


Why does Henry like Ultimate?

“He says ‘we don’t have refs and there’s a lot more running around,’ ” Loftus explained.

Ask any parent: Kids have more athletic opportunities to choose from today than ever. Soccer. Lacrosse. Swimming. Flag football. Gymnastics. On any given weekend you can find preschoolers at T-ball practice, learning yoga poses, playing ice hockey, even participating in Spartan Race obstacle courses.

But with more options come more questions for parents. When are kids ready to play organized sports? How do you find a quality youth program that they’ll enjoy? Is it all right to specialize in one sport? When is it OK to let kids quit?

Active kids do better in life, according to a recent report by the Aspen Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank. Physical activity is linked to academic achievement, and sports can have a positive impact on young people’s self-esteem, goal-setting, and leadership skills.


Yet national participation in youth sports has actually declined in recent years, the report says, as organized opportunities have shifted toward those with the most talent, financial resources, or commitment. (Read: parents/guardians who can chauffeur them to practices, games, and tournaments.)

Just 40 percent of children ages 6 to 12 played team sports on a regular basis in 2013, down from 44.5 percent in 2008, according to the report, which cited statistics from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.

Football has seen the steepest decline, but participation has also fallen in baseball, softball, soccer, and basketball. Meanwhile, more kids are playing racquetball, ice hockey, lacrosse, Ultimate Frisbee, and squash.

So, what’s a family to do?

First of all, parents should be smart consumers, said Ann Marie Gallo, a professor of physical education at Salem State University. She gave a recent talk on youth sports in Lexington, where she is founder and longtime director of Summer’s Edge Day Camp.

Before signing up, parents should make sure the sport suits their child’s needs and abilities. “I think the first priority should be teaching children how to move,” she said.

Recreation centers and YMCAs often offer a variety of sports and activities for young children, such as yoga and climbing walls. Gallo also recommends Ultimate Frisbee as “a nice introductory sport.”

Before signing their child up for a team, Gallo advises parents to “go down to a park and watch and see” what goes on at a typical practice.

What to look for? Gallo recommends activities that keep children involved and engaged. Is a ball provided to every child or pair of children, so that everyone can gain experience? Or is a pack of kids chasing after one single ball? She said young children can benefit from small games (two vs. two or three vs. three) on smaller fields.


And look for coaches who act like mentors and teachers.

Gallo recalled a time when she was watching her godchild play in a basketball game and the coach yelled at her team: “You’re playing like this is recreational basketball!”

The comment made little sense to Gallo. “She’s 12,” she said. “It’s supposed to be fun.”

Gallo cautions against specializing in one sport too early. Training year-round in one sport puts young athletes at risk for chronic overuse injuries, she said.

“More is not always better,” she said. “You risk burnout if you start too early.”

Kids quit sports for a variety of reasons: boredom, fatigue, the coach yells too much, the family can’t afford it. Gallo recommends that parents check in with young children and ask them: “Are you enjoying this? Do you like this?”

When talking sports with your young athlete, instead of asking “Did you win?” shift to more open-ended questions like: “How did you play today?” That question will spark conversations about the child’s experience, she said, which is far more important than the numbers on the scoreboard.

Burnout doesn’t seem like much of a problem for the kids playing Ultimate Frisbee in Lexington. Since the town’s Recreation and Community Programs Department partnered with the Boston Ultimate Disc Alliance to offer youth Ultimate Frisbee in 2011, the sport has continued to grow in popularity. This year, additional age groups were offered.


Dean Ranzo, who has been playing Ultimate since 1981, coaches the under-10 division, which includes kids as young as 7. He describes it as “an awesome” sport that combines “athleticism, good attitude, and fun.”

Ultimate Frisbee is the game of choice for Gillian Epstein’s children. Her 13-year-old son has been playing for a few years, and this year her 9-year-old daughter signed up as well.

“I appreciate that Ultimate is relaxed, all-inclusive, and very positive,” she said in an e-mail. “We were thrilled that the program agreed to take younger ages this summer, and my daughter loves it — it was the only team sport she was willing to consider.”

Loftus, the erstwhile soccer coach from Newton, admits to knowing little about Ultimate before his son adopted the sport.

“But it looks like fun,” he said, “and he really seems to enjoy it.”

Winners and losers
Participation in team sports by children ages 6 to 12 is on the decline, but some sports are doing better than others, according to data from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. Change in participation nationally among 6- to 12-year-olds from 2007 to 2014:
2007 2009 2014 % change
Football (Tackle) 1,883,000 959,000 -49.1%
Baseball 5,436,000 4,846,000 -10.8%
Basketball 5,797,000 5,413,000 -6.6%
Football (flag) N/A 1,402,000 1,086,000 -22.5%
Ice Hockey 299,000 434,000 45.1%
Lacrosse 221,000 349,000 57.9%
Soccer (outdoor) 5,802,000 5,072,000 -12.6%
Softball (Slow-pitch) 1,457,000 874,000 -40.0%
Ultimate Frisbee 352,000 439,000 24.7%
Racquetball 182,000 308,000 69.2%
Squash N/A 27,000 166,000 514.8%
SOURCE: Sports and Fitness Industry Association
Eight-year-old Sam Myerberg (left), played flag football at Lincoln Park in Lexington.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.