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Youth sports drawing more than ever

By Laura Hilgers
Special to CNN.com

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An estimated 41 million kids are involved in competitive youth sports.

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(CNN) -- Heather Clarke, a mother of four in Omaha, Nebraska, has a schedule so packed it makes you tired even hearing about it.

On a single day in June, for example -- one of her easier days -- she took one kid to basketball camp, another to tennis lessons, and then headed off to two softball games and basketball practice. Her children, who range in age from 6 to 13, play everything from volleyball and soccer to softball, tee ball and tennis (just lessons at this point, but you never know).

It's so much to keep track of that Clarke made her own calendar, a 2 1/2- by 4-foot wipe-off calendar that is color-coded by child. At the beginning of each day, she sits down in front of the calendar and writes out where she needs to be and when. She then tapes the list to her steering wheel.

Clarke is not the only one whose kids are involved in, well, everything. There are an estimated 41 million American kids playing competitive youth sports. The number of children involved in youth sports has risen significantly over the last 10 to 20 years, according to Dr. Steve Carney, a professor of sport management at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

"In just about every sport, there's been an increase" he says.

In soccer, which remains one of the country's most popular youth sports, numbers have risen from about 15 million in 1987 to more than 17.5 million in 2002, the latest date for which numbers are available, according to U.S. Soccer.

In Pop Warner Football, participation has nearly doubled in the last 15 years, from about 130,000 players to 260,000 players, according to the organization. The cheerleaders, who have competitions of their own, are now 140,000 strong.

Even off-beat sports like skateboarding, mountain biking and snowboarding, in which kids participate rather than compete, have grown substantially, Carney says.

Curiously, the one sport that has seen a decline is Little League Baseball, America's pastime. There has been a 1 percent decrease in enrollment every year since its peak in 1996. The organization attributed the decline to the myriad other options available to kids. That said, there are still more than 2.2 million kids lining up at home plate each year.

Much of the growing enthusiasm for youth sports has come from the changing way in which children play, experts say.

"You don't dare say to your child at age 8 or 10, 'Just go out and play and I'll just see you at dinnertime,' " says Jon Butler, executive director of Pop Warner. As unstructured play has gone by the wayside, competitive league sports have filled the vacuum.

But what kind of effect has it had on kids? For the most part, a good one, experts say.

Kids learn how to be physically active -- no small feat at a time when childhood diabetes is soaring and 16 percent of American kids are considered obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- as well as how to work within a team and take pride in their skills.

But there's a downside as well. "We're seeing a lot of what we call 'professionalization' of children's sports," says Dr. Dan Gould, the director of the Michigan State University Institute for the Study of Youth Sport. "We see a lot of kids, even young kids, doing it just for the scholarship now."

One of the biggest concerns in youth sports, Gould says, is parents who push their kids into "premature specialization," where kids focus all their skills on one sport and endure year-round training. It can lead not only to burnout, but also to sports injuries.

"There's pretty good research out there that says that you need about 10 years and 10,000 hours of practice to become really expert at a sport," says Gould. "The trouble is, parents hear these kinds of things, and they try to get it all in the first two years."

The costs to family life can be considerable, too. Just ask Bill Dunbar, a father of three in Seattle. His children, ages 5 to 11, play Little League, soccer, basketball, tennis, and gymnastics. "It's crazy," he says. "We live very close to all of our playing fields, but it is still just out of control."

He says that family dinners have gone the way of sandlot baseball, that homework is not started some days until 9:00, and that, often, the family, even the littlest kids, does not get into bed until 10:30 p.m.

So, why do it?

"We love it," he says, "and we think it's great for the kids, both physically and psychologically."

There are, of course, plenty of sports in which kids are still just having fun. Take lacrosse, one of the fastest growing sports, for example, which has gone from 82,000 youth players in 2001 to 204,000 in 2005, according to Brian Logue, spokesman for U.S. Lacrosse.

Part of its appeal, Logue says, is that not only is it a very active sport, but its rules also are still a little unfamiliar to parents, which means, that, unlike Little League, there are no "Little League Parents."

"The players' parents don't have any idea what the rules are or what the expectations should be," Logue says, "so the kids just go out there and have fun."

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