Youth sports are not only fun, they offer a wide range of benefits to children and teens, including:
- Higher levels of self-esteem and confidence
- Reduced risk of suicidal thoughts and tendencies
- Improved life skills, like goal setting, time management, and establishing a work ethic
- Opportunities for social and interpersonal development, such as teamwork, leadership, communication, and relationship building
- Improved concentration, memory, school attendance, and academic performance
- Regular exercise routines that can carry into adulthood
- Respect for rules and other people’s feelings
Sports can also encourage physical literacy, defined by the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE America) in 2015 as “the ability, confidence, and desire to be physically active for life.” It encompasses being active in a variety of physical activities in multiple environments to benefit the healthy development of the whole person. To develop physical literacy, sport sampling—trying different sports—is encouraged.
Risks to being active in sports include injuries and stress, but research has proven that the benefits of participation in youth sports far outweigh the risks.
Disparities in Access to Youth Sports
Unfortunately, not every child has the same access to youth sports, which, in turn, affects their getting the health, psychosocial, and academic benefits youth sports provide. Data from 2017 reveal that only 20 percent of adolescents meet the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, which means getting at least 60 minutes of moderate or better activity a day, and only about half the kids in the United States participate in a group sport.
The National Youth Sports Strategy was devised to unify U.S. sports culture around the vision that youth will one day have the same opportunity, motivation, and access to play sports regardless of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, ability, or location. On July 22, the National Council of Youth Sports (NCYS) is hosting a Hill Day, in which representatives will advocate for the U.S. Congress to assist community organizations through the creation of an economic stabilization fund of $8.5 billion for youth sports providers that solve gaps with the CARES Act. This fund will help prevent a total collapse of youth sports services during the COVID-19 pandemic and will continue to provide funding to help under-resourced communities.
Youth Sports for Everyone
There are ways youth, adults, and communities can create a culture to keep sports safe, fun, inclusive, and accessible to all youth. For one, youth can learn about the benefits of playing sports and ways to participate, as well as playing a variety of sports to find one that fits their abilities and builds confidence.
Parents and other adults can set examples for children by doing the following:
- Stress fun over competition
- Encourage sport sampling (playing more than one sport a year)
- Promote physical literacy
- Model good sportsmanship
- Set a positive attitude
- Become a coach, official, or volunteer
- Get training to develop skills to teach youth
- Emphasize skill development
- Allow kids to be part of the decision-making process regarding which sports to play
- Adapt equipment and activities to allow kids of differing abilities to play
- As a coach, adjust practice times so more children and parents have access to participate
- Be conscious of and adhere to safety guidelines
- Allow for unstructured play time
Organizations can do the following to provide more opportunities to youth:
- Make fun a priority over competition
- Offer safe, fun, inclusive, and developmentally appropriate sports
- Promote the benefits of sports to children and parents
- Recruit coaches who reflect community demographics
- Provide adults wishing to coach with the equipment and training necessary
- Provide background checks on all adult participants, including coaches, officials, and volunteers
- Develop partnerships with community businesses, recreation centers, schools, churches, government agencies, health-care facilities, and the media
- Encourage sport sampling
- Promote physical literacy
- Structure practices and games to provide all participants with more time to engage in activities of moderate or better physical activity
- Establish and enforce safety measures
- Consider location and transportation options when setting up activities so that they are safe and inclusive for all to get to and from
- Offer a variety of times so a greater number of kids can participate
Parents’ Encouragement Is Needed
The National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) has estimated that of the 40 million children who participate in youth sports annually, 70 percent will drop out by age 13. A common reason given for the high dropout rate is the lack of fun in playing sports as children age. Fun is often replaced by an emphasis on competition and winning, which can lead to the injuries that reduce the aspect of fun even more.
Because of the benefits sports provide to kids, it is important for parents to encourage children to participate. Turning off the TV and electronic devices and being a role model by introducing kids to physical activity at a young age can help prolong their interest in sports. Participating as a coach or volunteer as kids get older can also help.
Whether the child is an athlete (committed to a sport of activity), a casual athlete (interested in being active but not very competitive), or a nonathlete (not interested in physical activity or lacks ability), there are activities that suit all levels.
“Whatever their fitness personality,” says pediatrician Mary L. Gavin, “all kids can be physically fit. A parent’s positive attitude will help a child who’s reluctant to exercise. Be active yourself and support your kids’ interests . . . and they’ll come to regard activity as a normal—and fun—part of your family’s everyday routine.”
Sources: KidsHealth.org, Motivating Kids to Be Active, https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/active-kids.html; NAYS, “Pursuing Physical Literacy from Cradle to Grave,” https://www.nays.org/blog/pursuing-physical-literacy-from-cradle-to-grave/; NYCS, Executive Summary: The National Youth Sports Strategy, https://health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-10/NYSS_ExecutiveSummary.pdf; NYCS, National Youth Sports Week, https://www.ncys.org/advocacy/national-youth-sports-week/#:~:text=National%20Youth%20Sports%20Day%20%2F%20Week%20July%2020%2D24%2C%202020&text=The%20youth%20sports%20industry%2C%20comprised,businesses%2C%20risks%20a%20complete%20collapse; SHAPE America, Physical Literacy, https://www.shapeamerica.org/events/physicalliteracy.aspx