Many parents prioritize recreational activities for children amid risings costs
Despite inflation, Utah parents and coaches still place importance on youth sports and recreational activities
The whistle blows and a dozen 8-year-old boys start running around kicking a ball back and forth, hoping to score a goal this game.
West Jordan resident Summer Nuffer cheers from the sideline as her son, Lynx, kicks the soccer ball across the field. With two sons in club soccer at Utah Glory, a daughter on the Copper Hills drill team and another daughter at Synergy Dance Academy, Nuffer is a busy lady.
“It’s a lot of running around. Most nights the kids get home from school and we head out the door,” she said.
Going from dance practice to a soccer game to the high school football game halftime show can be chaotic, but Nuffer wouldn’t change it for the world.
Many parents around the state can relate to the busy days driving their kids to multiple practices and games. Although inflation is causing a lot of costs in life to increase, some parents and coaches are continuing to prioritize the importance of sports and recreational activities for children in Utah.
In fact, many recreational activities and competition-level teams for youth are thriving in numbers despite price increases for participation and various gear.
Thriving amid challenges
Nuffer said the price of gas has made it harder for the whole family to attend games that are located further away. Instead of piling the whole family into their big SUV, she opts for their sedan that has better gas mileage. She used to bring all the kids so they could support each other, but right now it’s necessary to make adjustments financially.
Sandy resident Sarah Gonsur and her family have also had to make changes to keep up with the costs of recreational activities. She has two girls who dance at Premier Dance Academy, a daughter in competitive cheer and a son in competitive soccer who also plays for Jordan High School soccer team.
Although Gonsur was teaching part time at the dance studio, she had to return to full-time work as an elementary school teacher this year to afford the costs of all four kids in sports.
“We didn’t want to give up any of their activities and this is our only option to pay for everything,” Gonsur said.
Jeff Gorringe, executive director of Ute Conference youth football, said the organization has more players now than ever. But the cost of coaches, referees, helmets and other equipment have all gone up, forcing the league to likely raise costs for parents in the coming year.
Gorringe said while Utah Conference tries to stay affordable for players and families, it becomes difficult for families who have multiple kids playing at a time. He does not know what will happen next year, but he is expecting the possibility of fewer players participating because of increased fees.
Mike Killpack, the Utah Amateur Athletic Union governor, said the organization has grown by about 1,500 players each year since the COVID-19 pandemic’s start. He said the biggest issue the group faces is gym space and a lack of qualified referees. Between school districts, private clubs and recreation teams, there isn’t enough gym space to handle all of the players.
“We struggle for gym time, and the private and charter schools, you can make deals with them, but regular schools it’s tough to get in and pay the fees to them. We have had to raise our entry fees around 5% to 10% just to cover the cost,” Killpack said.
The same goes for referees. Because the Utah Amateur Athletic Union is so big and it depends on referees, Killpack said it has needed to pay more to keep them on the job.
Russ Perna is the regional commissioner for region 354 of the American Youth Soccer Organization, which covers the Sandy and Draper areas. It is a nonprofit organization run by volunteers for coaching, administration and refereeing. Perna said last year the league struggled to have refs at each game. This year, it started paying the referees and so far hasn’t had any issues this fall season.
Perna said the organization as a whole is facing supply chain issues for buying uniforms, causing their orders to take twice as long to be shipped. Soccer club Utah Glory said it has also had a harder time getting gear and jerseys for players this year.
AYSO United Utah, the club program of the American Youth Soccer Organization in Utah, has seen substantial growth this year even though prices increased, according to club president Kaitlin Hunt.
Similar trends can be seen in the fine arts world as well.
Aaron Mitchell, of Utah Conservatory, said the music industry is being impacted by inflation and families being unable to afford lessons. Utah Conservatory hasn’t been impacted by the current economic situation, but it is still recovering from COVID-19 closures, Mitchell said.
Aspire Dance Academy officials said the organization has maintained and grown during “this difficult financial season.” However, Tewa Wride, with Aspire, said the impact is felt in “all the extra classes and specialty items that parents are doing without.”
Why keep them in?
“When it gets to the recital or the game, it was all worth it. All of the hard work and the running around,” Gonsur said.
For her, seeing her kids do what they love doing is more than enough payment for the time and money spent.
“I have always felt that giving kids life experiences through recreational activities is so valuable,” Gorringe said. “Parents will find ways even in difficult financial situations to keep their kids busy doing constructive things that benefit them.”
Utah Premier Basketball Club director Anita Rowland agrees.
“Parents will choose to do without other things to pay for their child’s participation in sports,” she said, adding that valuable skills are taught in recreation such as how to handle conflicts, lessons in resilience, learning from failure, group dynamics, delayed gratification, nutrition and physical health.
Dan Smith, coach of the 2013 boys Utah Glory teams, said he thinks recreation is important for kids because it lets them experience real world emotions, trials, and triumphs. Kids learn what it’s like to be a part of something bigger than themselves and how sometimes trying your best doesn’t end in the result you want.
Extracurricular activities are great for kids because it gives them a sense of community, provides leadership experience, collaboration in teams and positive influences from coaching, Perna said. It also prevents youth from getting involved in crime. Perna said the American Youth Soccer Organization has been talking with the city of Midvale to potentially work with Refugee Soccer, an organization that helps refugees play soccer as they work to build better lives.
Hunt, the soccer club president, is also a mother of four athletes who play competition soccer and other sports. She believes parents want their children involved in productive recreational activities that support a healthy lifestyle through exercise, commitment, dedication, work ethic, communication and more. Recreational activities provide youth a safe environment to develop and practice life skills, so parents are more than willing to pay for their child to experience it.
“I also believe that most parents want to provide opportunities that they may not have been provided, and, of course, want to give their child all the opportunity they can to build self confidence and find success in life. Sports — and other activities — are often an avenue to higher education, opportunities to travel and to experience more in life than they would without being involved in their sport,” Hunt said.
Joe Walker is a recreational therapist at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute. He said recreational sports are beneficial for youth because the interaction they experience is essential for brain development and emotional health. Moods are generally improved after participating in recreation and children are given opportunities to uniquely express themselves and be empowered in their choices.
The lure of being ‘elite’
Perna said locally and nationally, recreational sports are dropping in numbers as players switch to club and competitive teams.
Parents are switching their kids to clubs and competition teams for various reasons. Club teams typically have licensed coaches instead of the volunteer coaches on recreation teams. Switching to a club team means the child will have a knowledgeable, skilled coach who can help with individual progress and team growth.
Hunt said the push for club teams has followed a massive shift in youth sports in the past several years. “If players don’t switch to club at a younger age — generally by age 8 to 10 — they are behind in the competition leagues when they do transition to competition,” she said.
Youth athletes are now under increasing pressure to pick a sport early and to “be the best” at one sport, rather than playing multiple sports throughout the year, as most current adults did when they were young, Hunt said.
Although Rowland is a club basketball coach, she thinks “we’ve really screwed up youth sports.” As a coach of more than 38 years, who started one of the first girls basketball travel clubs in Utah in the early 1990s, Rowland has watched club sports amp up over the years.
“Each sport is now a 12-month-a-year commitment. We used to move leisurely from one sport to the next. Now, the pressure to play one or more sports year-round is insane and unhealthy,” Rowland said.
Social media has played a part in the “mushrooming of club sports,” Rowland said. Parents are constantly seeing posts from other parents of the many successes of children in multiple sports and feel they need to be doing the same for their kids.
Rowland said the lure of college scholarships also causes many parents to push their kids into sports more intensely than might be good for the child.
“The percentages of athletes earning a sport scholarship to a college or university is so small,” she said. “Parents are pulled into the narrative that if their child trains and competes all year, every year, then their child will make it to the bright lights of a university field or arena.”
Rowland has seen situations where the time and money spent to earn a college scholarship outweighs the cost of tuition for four years. Many times she has also seen players drop out of their sport after a year in college because of burnout and said physical injuries are occurring at younger ages from too much strain on bodies.
Walker discussed the importance of “proper engagement” with recreation. For kids in sports, that means making sure they are in a team or level where they fit, not pushing them so hard that they get discouraged, burned out or injured, while also placing them in situations where they are challenged and have room to grow.
It is so vital for children to learn to recognize and develop recreation and leisure skills in their life, Walker said. Fortunately, he said, there are so many options in recreation that everyone can find something they enjoy.
How to make the best of competitive sports
Rowland said she encourages her players to play other sports, even though some club coaches frown upon it. “It’s physically, mentally and emotionally more healthy to do so,” she said.
Many college coaches like to see their recruits play other sports, Rowland said.
“You can accomplish your goals by playing multiple sports. There will be some sacrifices for sure, but it’s really the last time in a kid’s life that he or she will be able to play all of these sports,” Rowland said. “It’s sad when club coaches take those opportunities away by convincing parents and players that kids need to specialize, and early.”
When parents and players are realistic about their reasons and goals for playing club sports, the experience can be quite enjoyable for everyone, Rowland said.
Parents and coaches used to evaluate the player’s skill to see if they were trending towards an elite level, or if they were just looking to get on a high school team. If they were aiming for the high school team, the player might stay in a mid-level program that focuses on skill development.
Lately, it seems all parents want their kids to be “elite,” and that just isn’t the case, Rowland said. Having realistic expectations for your child can help ease the pressure on them so they can continue having fun while playing sports instead of being focused on not disappointing.
“I think parents have lost sight of what a sports experience is really about,” she said. “Sports truly can be a microcosm of a healthy life.”
We are losing officials by the droves because of abuse from coaches and the fans. Players are acting out on the court in self-promoting and sometimes aggressive ways. Why? Our kids haven’t changed. The adults have. — Anita Rowland, director at Utah Premier Basketball Club
Part of the problem is how parents conduct themselves while on the sidelines. Kids love to play and be with their friends, but that is getting lost in the controlled atmosphere of competitive youth sports, Rowland said.
Too often parents are getting angry, yelling at coaches, trying to coach from the sideline and pressuring their kids to be the star of the team. Rowland said parents need to tap the brakes and really evaluate whether they are creating a healthy, enjoyable experience for their kids.
“We are losing officials by the droves because of abuse from coaches and the fans. Players are acting out on the court in self-promoting and sometimes aggressive ways. Why? Our kids haven’t changed. The adults have,” Rowland said.
Competitive sports might have its downsides, but parents still value the good it can do for their kids.
Nuffer said there are so many benefits she sees in her kids’ lives from participating in recreation. It gets them out of the house, doing something active, working in teams and learning how to deal with other personality types — all while giving them the opportunity to set goals and work hard to reach those goals, she said.
“I feel like it’s a big sacrifice on the part of any parent, but the benefits are far better than the craziness I go through,” she said. “It’s worth it to run them around and to see them succeed.”