Striking Out: Youth Participation in Team Sports Declining

footballIn the coming weeks, summer sports leagues will kick off across the United States. Children and teenagers will take to the fields, diamonds, and courts. But don’t expect to see as many as in past years. According to recent data, youth participation in America’s most popular team sports—basketball, soccer, baseball, and football—has fallen. In fact, it fell by roughly 4% between 2008 and 2012.

By sport, football participation rates dropped by 2.3% at the high school level and by 4.9% for ages 6 – 14. Basketball rates dropped by 1.8% at the high school level and by 6.3% for ages 6 – 14. Baseball rates modestly increased (by 0.3%) at the high-school level, but dropped by 6.8% in Little League. Finally, soccer rates stagnated, despite large gains in recent decades.

To explain these trends, some cite economic factors. They argue that the costs of sports are increasing, while many families and schools are cutting expenses. This has led families to delay or limit their children’s participation in sports, and has reduced physical education programs.

Others suggest that the cause is increasing pressure on youth to become elite athletes. Such pressure has contributed to a rise in single sport specialization (facilitated by year-round leagues in many states). It has also prompted zealous parents and coaches to overwork young athletes, to the point that “the sport is [no longer] fun”.

On a related note, young athletes today have “too many other options” for amusement.  “Social networking, video games, and other technology” are just a few. In the words of one Athletic Director, “Kids are more trained now to stay at home and play videogames. Sports don’t intrigue them.”

Lastly, some point to growing concerns about physical injuries. Pop Warner’s chief medical official, for example, believes that head injuries are the main reason behind the drop in football participation. In recent years, these injuries have received significant media attention. Even this blog has featured a post about rising concussion rates in youth sports.

Whatever the reason, the decline in team sport participation among youth could have considerable implications. After all, sports are “an antidote to growing problems like youth obesity”, which has doubled in children and quadrupled in teens over the last 30 years. Furthermore, according to the President of the American College of Sports Medicine, “it is much more likely that someone who is active in their childhood [will] remain active into their adulthood”. Team sports also promote social interaction and strengthen key skills like teamwork, communication, and leadership.

Fortunately, there are numerous ways to boost youth participation in team sports. To begin, parents can enroll their children in several sports, since “very few [such as gymnastics and figure skating] require athletes to specialize before the age of 10”. Parents should select the sports based on the children’s interests. They should also seek teams with narrow age ranges, as children close in age will have “similar physical, social, and cognitive development” and will generally “get along better”.

In addition, parents and coaches can help make team sports fun for young athletes. They can reduce pressure by “help[ing] kids set realistic goals—such as achieving a personal best”.  They can attend matches and cheer from the sidelines, regardless of the children’s performance. And they can integrate fun games (e.g. tag or frisbee) into warm-ups or practices.

Finally, anyone can donate to youth sports organizations. Such organizations include the Kids 4 Sports Foundation, Kids in the Game, and our partners, Memphis Athletic Ministries, Tacoma Baptist Athletics, and the Palm Beach Sharks. Please donate today!

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