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Published November 26 2010

Drop in student participation in North Dakota athletics has officials on alert

High school sports participation in North Dakota has declined 10 percent in less than a decade.

The state is one of only four that has endured losses since 2002-03, according to numbers provided by the National Federation of State High School Associations.

The stark numbers are all too familiar to North Dakota High School Activities Association Executive Secretary Sherm Sylling. It’s a trend that he and many administrators in the state have been monitoring for years.

According to Sylling, if the trend is not reversed or at least slowed down, there could be dire consequences.

“We need to start talking about keeping kids involved,” Sylling said. “We need to address the fact that if our kids don’t feel good enough and they quit, in the long term we are losing our broad base of support. That is a major cost.”

The state trails only Vermont (minus-31) and Montana (minus-14) in percentage of student-athletes lost since 2002-03. The District of Columbia also dropped 18 percent of its sports participants. There are several theories about why high school sports participation is shrinking in North Dakota.

A major culprit for North Dakota’s issues could be the state’s inability to hold its residents. North Dakota’s total high school enrollment has dropped 9 percent since 2002-03, according to the Department of Public Instruction.

However, that’s only part of the problem.

West Fargo boys basketball coach Greg Limke, in his 10th season with the Packers, said children are making choices to quit sports at an earlier age than ever before. If players don’t feel they can be stars in their sport, they sometimes give up, Limke said.

In basketball, Limke said the travelling team atmosphere is partly to blame.

“I think there are guys out there who want to play,” he said. “But trying to attach them to a group is difficult. When they don’t have a team, it’s difficult to find gym time. … As coaches, we are all very concerned. What can we do to reverse the numbers? In every sport, why are kids choosing not to be involved?”

South girls basketball coach Craig Flaagan agrees that traveling teams can alienate some players. Cost is a major issue, Flaagan said.

“It might be the economics,” said Flaagan, entering his 19th season as the Bruins coach. “The cost to play on a traveling team and going to camps, the pressure of programs to do those kinds of things maybe have kept some kids away.”

Flaagan said that his program has not seen declining numbers the last several years.

But that hasn’t been the case for everyone.

In North Dakota, boys and girls basketball has taken the biggest hit over the last eight years. The sport has lost 1,235 total participants.

Football has seen a decline of 710 total participants, and boys golf has dropped 390.

North Dakota has lost a total of 2,833 high school sports participants the last eight years. Boys sports make up the bulk of the losses, having declined 1,966 student-athletes.

Linton-HMB football coach Dan Imdieke, who has coached football and wrestling for 35 years, said he’s seen a shift in priorities for many students.

“The old theory is that kids would rather work,” Imdieke said. “They don’t have that competitive drive. … For me, if they wanted to work to buy a car instead of go out for a sport I think I would buy them the car. Sports aren’t the most important thing, but they are right up there.”

Scott Olsen, who just finished his first year as head coach at Hillsboro, said many parents are not pushing their kids to get involved with sports. He said some kids would rather play video games than join a sports team.

“It’s a tough spot for parents,” Olsen said. “We talk about life’s lessons all the time. It’s not an easy thing, playing on a sports team in high school. But you learn a lot of life’s lessons and a lot about trust.

“You can’t get that playing ‘Guitar Hero.’”

The states with the biggest sports participation gains since 2002-03 are Arkansas (41 percent), North Carolina (30 percent), Pennsylvania (29 percent) and Georgia (28 percent).

Minnesota increased 4 percent and South Dakota declined 1 percent over the last eight years.

Many North Dakota coaches are being proactive to try to retain players.

Limke started a fall basketball league three years ago in West Fargo for students in Grades 3-6 to provide opportunities that weren’t previously available.

Limke said West Fargo’s kindergarten through 2nd grade program is thriving, the 3rd and 4th grade program has leveled off and the 5th and 6th grade program numbers have declined.

“There are studies that show kids in activities have better grades,” Limke said. “When you have better grades you have fewer discipline problems. There is a value in athletics beyond the sport itself. As coaches, we feel like our teams are the last class of the day.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Heath Hotzler at (701) 241-5562.

Hotzler’s blogs can be found at www.areavoices.com