Declining participation threatens sports

B y Jaime Thomas

The Granville soccer team has only four experienced players returning this fall. The field hockey team might be limited to varsity only. Pee wee wrestling enrollment dropped by a third, and Little League was wont for players as well.

Across the region, schools are looking at combining their athletic programs to stay alive. In Granville, steadily declining numbers in sports has become a trend that can’t be ignored.

“There have always been ups and downs, but the lull we’re in now is somewhat troubling. Even in the more popular sports, even in Little League,” said Steve Palmer, the district’s athletic director. Concerned with the issue, Palmer recently reached out to local parents to come up with ideas and also presented the problem to the board of education.

Currently, there are 22 girls signed up for the field hockey team and only 18 for boys soccer, compared to an ideal 30 to 32 per team. Palmer explained to the board that those numbers are not competitive or sustainable, and could lead to “tough choices,” potentially involving the elimination of levels of those sports or the sports altogether.

“For field hockey we might have to have a varsity team without j/v unless numbers do come up. For soccer, do we even want to keep it going? We might have to have just junior varsity. It’s very difficult to run the programs like that. If nothing changes, I don’t see this being conducive to what a sports team is supposed to emulate,” Palmer said. At the pee wee wrestling level even, he said he had only 40 boys this year compared to the typical 60.

Though he specifically focused on the two sports, he said on Friday that he’s seen a general drop in numbers in the last five years.

“There’s been a change in society. It’s a mixture of many things; it’s an accumulation of many factors,” he said, highlighting several causes. Officials have trouble promoting a healthy lifestyle, for example, because it’s easier for people to eat fast food. Additionally, children have more accessibility to video games and electronics.

“We’re slowly developing a more solitary lifestyle rather than groups of people getting together,” Palmer said. “It (physical fitness) is not a focal point like it once was. Even though we have greater means for exercise, we’re losing the battle for physical fitness.” He said students now have trouble completing the mile run, not because they’re not trying, but because they physically cannot do it.

Locally, Palmer also sees many parents who have multiple jobs, which makes it hard for them to bring their children to and from practice.

In Whitehall, Athletic Director Keith Redmond said he is not having participation problems.

“Our numbers are steady and if not steady, then they’ve increased over the last year,” he said. However, due to low enrollment in the district, the school’s wrestling team will combine with Fort Ann’s this fall.

Wayne Bertrand, the executive director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Section II, thinks specialization is affecting participation.

“Rather than two or three sports, a kid will specialize in a single sport. I do not believe specialization is the way to go,” he said, adding that studies show that it doesn’t develop a well-rounded athlete, which ends up deterring college coaches.

He also said lack of playing time could become an issue for potential players, but that he hasn’t seen enough supporting data to further expand on the subject.

Palmer said the problem is a trend across the state, and that locals need to become proactive.

“We have to come together as a community and say this is what we want to do,” he said. “The number one thing we’re fighting is attrition, retaining numbers.”

School officials are looking into ways to combat the problem and welcome community input. Palmer thinks the district needs to introduce and promote Granville’s sports to children at lower levels. Down the road, he sees area schools consolidating their athletic teams.

For now, Palmer encourages parents to get their kids involved, get in touch with coaches and encourage participation.

“When I think of the future of athletics, I think on a positive note. They haven’t written the book yet.”

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