Youth sport participation in the U.S. has been falling for the last decade with little sign of stopping. If we want to teach kids about sportsmanship and promote active lifestyles, this is a problem worth fixing. But why did this trend begin, and what can we do to counteract it?
The trend is due to a combination of factors, some that are easy to digest and some that aren’t. The easiest factor to understand (and one that no one can be blamed for) is a falling birth rate in the United States. A 2015 article by Forbes writer Bob Cook looks at this more closely:
“It’s a simple fact of demography: the baby bust that was a result of the most recent recession and its aftermath is now coming up through the youth sports system. In 2007, a record 4.3 million births occurred in the U.S., but that number declined every year from 2008 to 2012.”
On the surface, this statistic doesn’t appear to have any adverse consequences aside from the smaller pool of athletes that was bound to follow. However, this becomes a bigger problem when considered in combination with other factors. A more sedentary culture that feeds into itself, brought on by the rise of Netflix and video games, can seem more enticing to kids than joining a sport. The financial cost of participating is also to blame, discouraging low-income families from putting their kids in sports. This all results in even fewer youth athletes.
However, what’s likely the biggest factor (and the one that’s likely the hardest to stomach) is the pressure that many parents put on their kids to win, usually in the hope that their youth athletes will get a college scholarship. Parents in this category may be spending hundreds or thousands of dollars per year on travel fees and equipment for their athlete (fueling a seven billion dollar sport-tournament industry), expecting that their kids perform at a high level in return. Unfortunately, this isn’t at all in line with the reasons that kids want from participating in sports. Michael S. Rosenwald of the Washington Post says:
“Amanda Visek, an exercise professor at George Washington University, recently surveyed nearly 150 children about what they found fun about sports. The kids identified 81 factors contributing to their happiness.
Number 48: winning.
Also low on the list: playing in tournaments, cool uniforms and expensive equipment. High on the list: positive team dynamics, trying hard, positive coaching and learning.”
What can we do to mitigate these factors? One solution is to reintroduce free-to-play leagues across the country, which not only removes financial barriers to entry for young athletes but can also be used as a platform for promoting more active and non-sedentary lifestyles (without the pressure and cost of a pay-to-play league). Another solution is to educate parents on the difficulty of obtaining sports-related scholarships and to encourage those parents to listen to what their kids have to say about their opinions on sports participation.
Solving the problem of falling participation in youth sports can have countless benefits. Kids who live active lifestyles are far less likely to be obese, more likely to perform well academically and attend college, have higher incomes as adults, and are far less likely to suffer from heart disease. Read more about what you can do to encourage youth sports participation here.