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Sports help keep youth occupied
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- In well-functioning communities, youth sports may seem like just a pastime, but their value is seen most clearly in their absence.
Youth desire places to congregate and things to do. If these are not provided, they will find their own, often gathering in parking lots, cruising streets or taking up undesirable activities.
Louise Davis, Extension child and family development specialist with Mississippi State University, said community support of organized sports is important in keeping youth occupied.
"Community support for youth development is important, and if communities don't provide places for youth to play and have activities, there usually are no good places for youth to congregate," Davis said. "This leaves possibilities open for inappropriate activities."
She suggested that physical activities such as organized sports for males and females, parks with nature activities, playground areas, bike trails and gymnasiums with different activities for all ages are some of the best ways to keep youth profitably entertained.
Davis pointed to a correlation between communities without organized youth sports and higher rates of teen pregnancy, school dropouts, juvenile delinquency and drug activity. While sports do not ensure youth will not stray, they do promote discipline and sportsmanship. Organized sports give youth a fun way to fill their time, while teaching them skills and keeping them physically active.
Davis said Mississippi probably has 20 or more counties with no organized recreational programs. While this is a drawback at any time of the year, it is especially pronounced in the summer when youth are out of school, parents are often away at work and youth are looking for ways to fill their free time.
"Communities need to provide good activities through sports and must believe it's important for these to be accessible to all families," Davis said. "It becomes even more important to provide appropriate outlets for the teens. If not provided with healthy and appropriate choices, teens will find their own activities, and sometimes these are not always good choices."
Just as important as providing opportunities for organized sports are the coaches and volunteers who make things happen.
Marty Brunson has coached baseball, basketball and flag football for eight years in Starkville for every age group between 5 and 14. He sees volunteer coaching as an opportunity to teach kids skills they will use for the rest of their lives.
"I want to be sure that my two boys and the other kids who want to learn sports are taught the fundamentals of how to play correctly," Brunson said. "More overriding, it's an opportunity to develop basic life skills that will be with them long after their athletic careers."
Through participating in athletics, Brunson said kids learn such principles as self discipline, patience, respect for authority, delayed gratification, teamwork and how to deal with failure. Sports offer a convenient method for this training, as youth must exercise these characteristics in preparing for the game.
Brunson said parents sometimes pose the greatest barrier to youth development. Brunson categorized them as either athletic "has-beens" who are OK with this fact, "has-beens" who aren't OK with their status and try to live vicariously through their kids, and the "never-weres" who never were stars themselves, but often push their child to succeed.
"Two of those three parent categories can become major barriers to youth development," Brunson said. "We tend to pressure the kids too much to be stars, even at the expense of their emotional stability. We have to remember that they're kids, not adults, and the pressure we impose on them to win and to always excel can be unfair. Success is not necessarily measured on the scoreboard, and the true winners are not always on the team that wins the most games."
The American Sports Education Program quantified several of the benefits of participation in sports. These include building an appreciation of personal health and fitness, developing a positive self-image, learning teamwork, developing social skills, learning how to manage success and disappointment, and respecting others.
Davis said many Mississippi communities benefit from 4-H clubs offered through the MSU Extension Service and extended-day program offered through local schools. Both of these provide physical and mental structure for youth, keeping them occupied and out of trouble, while at the same time building life skills.