The mass exodus from traditional youth sports to video gameplay has the potential to create a cascade of adverse public health concerns if the question continues to be left unanswered.
When I was a kid, there were no video games. Not because there were no video games, but rather my parents didn’t allow them. My parents also banned the word “boring.”
Being bored to them meant that we weren’t trying hard enough. Trying hard meant studying or playing a sport. That meant at my desk or outside.
Video Games Are a Dilemma
If that didn’t maintain our interest, they found some chores or other child labor to combat our boredom. I played a lot of sports.
When I had children, video games were a dilemma. My wife and I agreed with the “boring” rule, but the video game one? Life could convince us. Or, more accurately, our kids could.
Outdoor sports would have to come first. I played soccer since I was ten, and my modest career took me to NCAA division three. My boy would play soccer.
My Boy Would Play Soccer
He played, but it wasn’t fun for him, or so I found out. He didn’t say anything, except that he wanted to try a different sport. My son chose lacrosse, and his career has taken him to NCAA division three. He loved to play then and still does now.
I knew very little about lacrosse. I did think I knew a lot about soccer, and I made it clear. I was a madman on the sideline. My son made his subtle protest clear by picking a sport I couldn’t use to relive my youthful zeal precariously. I was quiet, and he was free to play his game. We were both happier in the end.
A Different Person on the Sidelines
As I became aware of the error of my ways, it was more apparent that many of my fellow parents hadn’t. Their children shrunk in shame as they pranced up and down the sideline, yelling at whoever had the misfortune of listening.
It was more than an attempt to relive their youth for many parents. A lot was riding on their kids, and they were expecting a return on their investment. It’s no wonder that those kids, on average, played less than three years and quit by age 11, according to The Aspen Institutes Sports and Society Program 2021 survey. The primary reason given is, “It is not fun anymore.”
An Alarming Trend
The trend is not a recent one. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, youth sport participation has declined from 45% in 2008 to 38% of children ages 6 to 12 in 2018. Covid-19 has sped up the downswing.
In the pandemic’s early days, 19% percent of parents surveyed by The Aspen Institute revealed their child’s lost interest in playing sports. The figure jumped to 28% by September 2021. Youth sports is a $19 billion industry. During the pandemic, other academic and social interests have taken the forefront in competing for our children’s attention.
About one-third of the world’s population are gamers. A whopping 2.4 billion people, according to the German international marketing firm Statista. Gaming is a scholarship sport at many universities that have invested millions in their facilities. Professional esports teams compete for multimillion-dollar prize pools. Esports personalities garner millions in endorsements and viewer subscription fees.
To emphasize the alarming trend, a recent assessment of British schoolchildren discovered that ten-year-olds are significantly weaker than their peers a few decades ago. The recent study showed a 20-percent decrease in muscle strength and a 30-percent decrease in endurance since 1998. The weakness gap is growing wider with every passing year and the culprit is staring us in the eye.
Video Games are the Resounding Choice For Our Youth
According to a survey of 10,000 Gen Zers conducted by Piper Sandler, 26% chose video games as their favorite entertainment compared to 10% who watched television for fun. Of those, 87% owned iPhones. Esports and gaming are tough competition.
My wife and I made our own family video game rule and allowed our son to get his first console when he was twelve, but it came with boundaries. Academics and outdoor sports came first. We limited video gameplay to a set amount of time per day. A strange thing began to happen.
As my son earned the privilege to play more often, I became more aware of the positives of his gameplay. He could interact socially with friends even when they weren’t there. We purchased him an audio headset, and the effortless crosstalk made it seem like they were.
My son watches and interacts with his favorite pros streaming live when not playing himself. My son thrived in a competitive environment absent of adult influence and gained valuable life skills.
A Few Strange Things Began to Happen
Then an even stranger thing began to happen. My son and I were enjoying effortless crosstalk about OUR gaming. Yes, me, the boy who grew up without video games in his life, was playing every day. Virtual cycling, Zwifting, that is!
Esports programs are popping up all over the country. The YMCA of America recently launched a program in over a hundred branches. Gaming is filling the void left by the departure of young people from traditional athletics.
Video Games Lack a Critical Element
For the youth of this generation, gaming and esports lack a crucial element. It is time that we address the elephant in the room. There is no benefit of physical activity. A consequence that will potentially set off a shockwave of public health repercussions felt for generations to come.
Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to combine video gaming and physical activity in one tidy package? You know I was getting here. It checks all the boxes.
Knowledge of technology is not a barrier for the savvy youth of today as it is for many of us. Aside from the start-up cost, the ongoing financial commitment is less than traditional sports teams. The opportunity to “find a game” or someone to play with is endless – show up and go. The effortless audio headset conversation, virtual cycling has that too – Discord.
Is Virtual Cycling Fun?
Let’s address the other elephant in the room. Is virtual cycling fun? I think it is, but I’m not sure most children would. Therein lies another dilemma. For the population of our youth who have chosen video games over traditional sports, never to go back, how can we make virtual cycling appealing?
In a recent study, researchers tested the influence of gamification on the tendency for families to increase their physical activity with promising results. The application of game design elements such as points and levels has a significant positive effect, and gamers and designers have noticed.
Nintendo has fused gaming and exercise in Ring Fit Adventure. The game promotes physical activity by using peripherals for players’ hands and legs while battling monsters and tracks their stats.
Beat Saber is a virtual reality game that requires players to hit glowing blocks with lightsabers to the beat of popular songs.
The virtual reality climbing simulator The Climb 2 requires a surprising amount of upper body endurance. Players feel immersed in the climbing experience and risk falling off the mountain if they don’t keep their arms lifted and moving.
We can’t forget all those dance video games. The dancing is excellent exercise and looks like a lot of fun if you have rhythm. I’ll admit, I’m not the life of the dance party. However, a party is what I heard as I walked by my son’s door contemplating the answer.
Reinventing the Wheel
I looked in to see what all the one-way laughter and shouts were. He was playing a game with his friends. It was evident they were having a good time from the excited crosstalk and his inability to stay in his seat.
“What’s this?” I asked. I awaited a momentary break in the action for his response, “Rocket League.” My son and his friends were a team driving rocket-powered cars and using them to push a ball into their opponent’s goal.
“What if you and your friends powered the cars by pedaling a bike?” I thought aloud. When my son took the chance to look my way, it wasn’t in approval. Then I remembered one of the business philosophies I fell back on when building my practice.
Conclusion—Be Good at What You’re Great at For the Kids
You have a better chance at success by doing what you are great at, not what makes your competition good. Virtual cycling and Zwift, in particular, are already great at esports and eracing. Why not make online bike racing more accessible and fun for the youth population that has chosen away from traditional sports?
I asked a similar question back in September 2021 when Zwift amended its Esports ruleset to exclude junior racers from competing in the ZRL. The answer was the same then as it is now. As I suggested in the “Zwift Esports Ruleset Excludes Racers Under 16” article series, there is one logical solution.
The creation of a junior ZRL! A racing league exclusively for our children. The junior ZRL would be a safe place that combines the benefits of physical activity and the allure of video gameplay in a rewarding and fulfilling package.
The director of one of the most extensive youth cycling development programs in the country outlines the elements that would make the league successful in this article.
I want to take the opportunity to ask the same question I asked then and has been left unanswered, “Are our kids worth it?”
Are our kids worth it?
Is the trend from traditional youth sports to video gameplay alarming to you and what should we do? Comment below. Your fellow virtual cycling parents want to know.
Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit. Chris is committed to helping others with his bike through its work and the pages of his site.
In the summer of 2022, he rode 3,900 miles from San Francisco to New York to support the charity he founded, TheDIRTDadFund. His “Gain Cave” resides on the North Fork of Long Island, where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two independent children.
You will read him promoting his passion on the pages of Cycling Weekly, Cycling News, road.cc, Zwift Insider, Endurance.biz, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!