Take the journey.
Sometimes a journey starts with a single step, and sometimes it's a shove in the back.
Nine years ago, Joe Manns and I were the co-founders of the Rice Creek Boat Club. I came to my first USCA Nationals in Bristol, IN, met a bunch of people, and I got to race a couple of races. But mostly I was there in company of about 15 youth from the Rice Creek Boat Club (thanks for the shout-out, Jan). We made it to the subsequent Nationals in PA, WI and MI, but unfortunately we weren't seeing growth in the youth ranks. In 2011, we were invited to bring 4 of my best kayak athletes to a camp in Chula Vista to give sprint kayak a try. And at that point, I switched my entire focus to coaching Sprint.
The difference in turnout between sprint and marathon is pretty shocking. USCA Nationals is usually 10-25 kids of all ages (5-19). USAC/K Sprint Nationals is 300+ kids, with 12-15 year olds being the sweet spot. It's not unusual to have 30-40 13-14 yo boys, and 20-30 girls, lining up for sprints, Go to Canada, and you'll find 600 youth racing ICF canoes and kayaks in Halifax/Dartmouth alone!
Share the experience
Why the difference? It's not the training hours, it's the number of kids training. The development athletes (planning to go to Nationals) put in 6-8 hours a week in the summer, the elite (planning to make finals at Nationals) are putting in closer to 15-20, and in training of some kind year around. The serious difference is who they are training _with_. As much as most kids love their grandparents, training all the time with grandpa and his friends is not nearly as much fun as training with 10-20 of *your* friends.
Note I've been focusing on sprint here, but it also applies to marathon, or SUP, or touring. Our marathon group has ebbed and flowed, but it still revolves around the youth. Kids are the single best recruiting tool you can have. You, as adults, have to back that up with equipment and volunteers to help coach, drive, chaperon, fundraise, etc.
Another BIG reason. Take a look at the number of parents who have their little darlings scheduled from school-out to late bedtime with sports, sports camps, individual coaching, travel teams, And that's just for the 8 year olds! The sports budget for a "typical" traveling team 8-10 year old is $6,000 - $15,000 per year! For hockey, dance, gymnastics or ice skating, it can be far more. The sad news is that by the time they are 12-15, most of these kids will be so burned out and injured that they *hate* the sport that mom/dad have invested their college education fund in pursuing. Oh, and the chance of actually getting a scholarship for those single sport athletes? - Nil.
Mostly, they do prefer to be connected, both to the digital world and to the oxygen breathing one. They like to watch their friends race, they like meeting other kids who do the same activity, and they like having the shared experience. The digital generation isn't disconnected from reality and buried in a game, they just interact differently than the gray-hairs do. Watch a group of kids after practice or after a race and they'll be actively on their phones with their friends across the country or even world, via snapchat, twitter, instagram or messenger, sharing their experience. Like as not, half of the people standing/sitting around with them are part of that experience.
Join a guild.
This year, as they have for the past few years, I'll be out with a group of 8-10 young athletes who are on the water at 6:00 AM 4-5 mornings a week, and back at 5:00 PM 4 days a week. They have a variety of reasons for being there, but mostly it's to belong, to strive, to excel. And mostly, they come because they know they will have friends out there with them, sharing the experience and also striving to improve. Norman Bellingham, past USOC Exec Director, and I think the last US athlete to wear Gold for sprint kayak (with Greg Barton) called it "Joining a guild" - a community of like minded people striving to improve at their craft, learning from each other, their 'guild masters' (coaches) and sharing their knowledge.
Learn the game.
Want to do something about kids racing? Find ways to help people like Steve Corlew get their club started up and racing. Find an old sprint boat or two and get a group of kids out to paddle. Need help or ideas? Yell. I'll be happy to help you find a club near you, or help get one started.