Where have all the Players Gone?

According to a recent survey conducted by the National Federation of High Schools, basketball has the second most participants of all high school sports nationwide.  The great game developed by Dr. Naismith is the most played sport by girls and is second only to football for boys.  In Maine, high school basketball is the favorite pastime for many.  It’s an escape from the winter doldrums, a way to avoid cabin fever that can set in during those dark, cold months.

While basketball still remains the Pine Tree State’s favorite, there seems to be a downward trend in participation at the high school level.  An obvious answer for this reduction would be the declining enrollments most Maine schools are facing.  As would be expected, smaller schools have found difficulty fielding full rosters, while also fielding junior varsity squads.  In order to aid those schools with the lowest enrollments, the Maine Principals’ Association has allowed eighth graders to play on varsity teams for schools who number sixty or fewer students per gender.  This is an increase from the previous cutoff of forty.

Low participation numbers are not solely limited to the smallest schools.  In the past week I attended two girls J.V.\varsity doubleheaders, one of which involved a Class B school and the other competed in Class C.  In both cases one of the “JV” teams consisted of those players who didn’t play in or received few minutes in the varsity contest.  This scenario has played out in various other programs, many of which have achieved great success in terms of wins and losses.  I spoke with a parent of a girl in a Class A program in which only fourteen girls participate, with the majority of those being freshmen.

Freshmen teams, before a rite of passage for many entering the high school ranks, are becoming history.  Some teams have succumbed to tight budgets but many more simply fail to exist due to lack of numbers.  Many programs cannot field full varsity and JV squads, let alone support a freshman team.

Some who are critical of today’s youth point to the many distractions, such as computers, video games, and the like.  While this may be true for some, in my dealings with young people I find this to be over exaggerated and simply not accurate in most cases.  In my association with high school athletics, I’ve found today’s teens to be for the most part hard working, driven, and focused.

So where have all the players gone?  Why are some programs having difficulty attracting student athletes?  There seem to be some trends, which have transpired over time, which have led us to our current state of affairs.

Could we be starting our young players too early?  Many basketball players, who start as early as first grade, often burn out by the time they get to high school.  The thought process for many is if we don’t start our kids early, they will get left behind.  There is nothing wrong, in essence, with starting kids at a very young age, provided the instruction is age appropriate.

Not only do we possibly start our kids too early, we separate them too early as well.  Some communities have “elite” travel programs for kids as young as third grade.  The focus turns to developing those “elite” players, taking them to tournaments all over, molding them to win that gold ball in high school.  What happens to those kids, who are not “elite” by the third grade?  What if they are simply late in developing?  In addition, many of these programs cost a significant amount of money.  From playing in tournaments, to eating out, to hotel costs, these fees price a number of families out of the game.

Contributing to the lack of numbers in many high school basketball programs is the rise of the single sport athlete.  I’ve heard a number of kids tell me they were cutting out basketball to concentrate on another off-season sport.  Many professional athletes have lauded the benefits of being a multi-sport athlete growing up yet many ignore this advice and think they will be the exception.  In watching a recent John Bapst boys basketball game, I made the comment to football coach Dan O’Connell how football has made one of our returning players a much better basketball player.

In a way, maybe not verbally, but athletes have sort of been nudged towards one sport.  Are the demands too much in the off-season?  Are those “optional” summer workouts really optional?  If this is the case and basketball is not an athlete’s first sports love, chances are you will lose that player, never to get them back.

For many, being a part of a sports team meant social status among peers.  Whether you were the star or the last player off the bench, being part of the team meant something.  I’m not sure that feeling is as prevalent anymore.  For many, and I’ve seen this happen more and more regularly in recent years, if a young person doesn’t feel they will receive significant court time, often they will not go out.  Kids, for the most part know the pecking order, who the better players are.

Of course participation numbers are going to fluctuate from year to year.  Hopefully, these ideas will give some food for thought as we press forward, continuing to develop our great game.

Bob Beatham

About Bob Beatham

Bob, a lifelong Bangor resident, has just completed his 21st season as the Public Address Announcer at Mansfield Stadium in Bangor. Bob is also the public address voice for John Bapst Crusader football. He also currently serves as the scorekeeper for John Bapst basketball. Bob is an avid follower of Maine high school athletics, particularly football and basketball. The University of Maine at Farmington graduate is the service coordinator at Aging Excellence, which provides in-home care for seniors..