Spring is just around the corner and for many youth that means spring sports. Unfortunately, for many more youth, it does not. Increased privatization of sports decreased parks and recreation budgets, limited school sports opportunities and closures due to COVID have all negatively impacted youth sports participation and youth physical activity.
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend that youth ages 6 through 17 do at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity to attain the most health benefits from physical activity, and the benefits of physical activity are well documented, yet less than one-quarter (24%) meet that goal. Sports are a common source of youth physical activity, yet only about half of youth participate in a sports team. In addition, there are disparities in sports participation and physical activity: girls, youth of color, youth from households of low incomes, youth in rural areas and youth with disabilities are less likely to be physically active and play sports.
This leads to the question, what does it mean to win in youth sports? Is it having a few select elite teams? Or is it time to redefine what it means to win to focus on expanding youth sports participation.
The reasons for lack of physical activity and sports participation are varied and have been well defined by the Aspen Institute’s Project Play. We agree with the recent Op-Ed by Tom Farrey and Kristine Stratton that there is a critical need to invest in local sports and recreation as one way to build equitable sports programming. In addition, we recommend the following strategies:
· Increase no/low-cost sports options – Pay to play sports not only excludes many youth, but it can negatively impact the viability of recreational sports by reducing participants and competing for field space. Sports opportunities that do not require try outs, large fees, and ability to travel are needed to make sports accessible to all.
· Invest in school physical education and sports programs – School physical education and sports could serve as an entry point for many youth, but school budgets often limit sports provided or limit number of students that can participate.
· Involve youth in identifying and promoting sports – A variety of team and individual sports, traditional and non-traditional sports are needed to provide options that appeal to the diverse youth in our country. The surest way to provide options that will resonate, is to engage with youth themselves.
· Include all youth – Limited sports opportunities often leave behind youth with disabilities. Initiatives such as the Special Olympics’ unified sports offer examples of how sports can integrate youth of all skill levels and abilities to build strong sports teams and provide opportunities for physical activity.
Youth sports are not the only way to be physically active, but they are a key strategy and resource for supporting youth. It is time to redefine what it means to win.