Why Youth Sports Need to be Fixed—And How

As part of Project Play 2020, the Aspen Institute recently released seven reasons why youth sports need to be fixed. Project Play 2020 aims to improve access to youth sports regardless of ability or location and its study shows there is cause for concern in youth sports. The $15 billion-dollar youth sports industry is broken and we are seeing the effects. According to the Aspen Institute’s data, the number of participants playing team sports on a consistent basis has dropped nearly 10% over the last decade. Only 36.9% of youth now play team sports regularly. This damaging trend must be reversed before the activities we love are displayed along the sides of other museum relics.

Here are some of the alarming trends identified by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA):

  • Children from homes in the lowest income bracket are far more likely to be physically inactive than kids from wealthier households.
  • For most sports, participation rates on a regular basis keep declining, with only gymnastics, lacrosse and ice hockey experiencing increases between 2008-16.
  • The average child plays fewer than two sports—a statistic now on a regular down cycle due to sport specialization, even though evidence shows playing only one sport can be harmful to the body and stunt athletic development.
  • Less than one-third of youth coaches are trained in competencies such as safety and sport instruction (Solomon, Sept. 5, 2017).

These are all frightening statistics from youth sports. Like other youth sports, educational athletics face notable pressures and set of issues, but school-based sports also have significant advantages—opportunities which are significant and must be captured. The systems, caring adults, and training within interscholastic sport can make all the difference. In fact, the National Federation of High School Associations (NFHS) recently released number showing participation in high school sports increased for the 28th consecutive year. In school-based sports we have the system to provide for those students in financial need, coaches who are part of larger mission and value multi-sport participation, and initiatives (like the InSideOut Initiative!) to give coaches the training and support they need.

So, in education-based athletics, how can we combat the current disheartening trends facing our youth sports partners? Here are a few ideas as starters:

  • Encourage a measure of success that reaches far beyond the scoreboard and promotes the far-reaching benefits of participation.
  • Hire, train, and support coaches that become part of a transformational culture.
  • Develop individual and collective purpose statements that champion who and what we are all about in educational-athletics.
  • Build a community that emphasizes moral character, not solely performance character.
  • Have fun! The number one reason youth play sports is to have fun – we need to make sure we hold up our end of the deal to make the experience enjoyable!

The best part is—each and every one of us can make a difference. Whether you are leading a single team or an entire department—all of us can make this shift and keep kids playing the sports we love and provide the transformational experiences sports have the potential to offer!