Sports are an important part of the lives of most children in the United States. Just over 21 million youth between the ages of 6 to 17 play team sports on a regular basis, with another 5 million engaging on an occasional basis, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association annual survey of households. Kids are most active before the teenage years, though participation is declining. Children ages 6 to 12 who played sports regularly fell from 44.5 percent of that population in 2008 to 40 percent in 2013.
The decline is rooted in many factors. An espnW/Aspen Institute Project Play Survey of Parents on youth sports issues in September 2014 showed that most parents have concerns about risk of injury (87.9%), the quality or behavior of coaches (81.5%), cost (70.3%), the time commitment required (67.9%), and the emphasis on winning over having fun (66.1%). Full results from the nationally representative survey are available here.
Below are facts on the benefits of sport participation and physical activity, today's barriers to sport participation, and the consequences of inactivity:
Regular physical activity benefits youth in many ways, including helping build and maintain healthy bones, muscles, and joints; helping control weight and reduce fat; and preventing or delaying the development of high blood pressure (GAO, 2012).
Childhood sports participation is a significant predictor of young adults' participation in sports and physical fitness activities. Adolescents who play sports are eight times as likely to be active at age 24 as adolescents who do not play sports (Sports Participation as Predictors of Participation in Sports and Physical Fitness Activities in Young Adulthood, Perkins, 2004).
Physical activity is associated with improved academic achievement, including grades and standardized test scores. Further, such activity can affect cognitive skills, attitudes and academic behavior, including enhanced concentration, attention, and improved classroom behavior (GAO, 2012).
High school athletes are more likely than non-athletes to attend college and get degrees; team captains, MVPs achieve in school at even higher rates (US Dept. of Education, 2005).
A number of studies provide support for the premise that physical activity, and sports in particular, can positively affect aspects of personal development among young people, such as self-esteem, goal-setting, and leadership. However, evidence indicates that the quality of coaching is a key factor in maximizing positive effects (GAO, 2012).
Compared to non-athlete peers, female high school athletes are less likely to be sexually active, to use drugs, and to suffer from depression (Women's Sports Foundation, 2004). The benefits extend to the workplace. A survey of 400 female corporate executives found 94 percent played a sport and that 61 percent say that has contributed to their career success. (EY Women Athletes Business Network/espnW, 2014)
More benefits can be found at "Human Capital Model" on p. 11 of "Designed to Move" (2012)
Today, the evolving and complex youth sport system in the U.S. necessitates significant resources to develop an athlete and play competitive sports (Sport Participation Rates Among Underserved American Youth, University of Florida's Sport Policy & Research Collaborative, 2014). The barriers to participation emerge early, with the rise of grade school travel teams and elite sport training options that are not accessible to many lower-income kids. While only 20 percent of U.S. households report an annual income of at least $100,000, 33 percent of households participating in sports enjoy that income level. Travel-team parents spend an average of $2,266 annually on their child's sports participation, and at the elite levels some families spend more than $20,000 per year.
There's a relative lack of access for minority children. Sport participation rates for white children exceed that of African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian kids. Furthermore, data on other historically marginalized groups such as Native-American children are not even reported in governmentally funded studies that track physical activity in youth. (University of Florida's SPARC, 2014). In the Native American community of San Felipe Pueblo, N.M, the only organized sport option is an after-school soccer program serving 250 of the 1,500 kids who live there and which is organized by a non-profit devoted to addressing childhood obesity in tribal areas (Notah Begay III Foundation). See the chart at right created by ESPN and culled from research.
Access is also shaped by geography and gender. In "low socio-economic schools," those that serve the highest percentage of kids on free or reduced-price lunches, only 24.6 percent of eighth graders play sports. At "middle socio-economic schools," it's 30.9 percent. For "high socio-economic schools," it's 36.1 percent. Despite major gains in among girls over the past four decades delivered by Title IX legislation and enforcement, the participation rates for girls remains 2 to 5 percent lower than for boys. (Bridging the Gap, RWJF, 2012). There are 10.6 million girls between the ages of 6 and 17 who play a sport at least once a year, compared to 16.5 million boys (SFIA, 2012)
In Washington, D.C., the percentage of athletic opportunities provided to public high school students has been as low as 15 percent for boys and 6 percent for girls (Progress Without Equity, Women's Sports Foundation, 2011). Disparities exist by state, too. Northeast and Midwest states generally offer more participation opportunities than those in the South and West. Georgia has the lowest rate for girls (22 percent), Florida the lowest for boys (30 percent) (Decade of Decline, Women's Sports Foundation, 2012). Children with physical and intellectual disabilities often experience very limited opportunities in their communities. Despite considerable growth in sport options in recent years driven in part by anti-discrimination laws, one estimate suggests that physical activity levels for children with disabilities remain as much as 4.5 times lower than those without disabilities. (University of Florida SPARC, 2014)
Fading is the era of sandlot or pickup ball, a form of play that organically promoted innovation and fitness among generations of Americans. A leading annual survey of participation trends notes that "casual play continues to decline dramatically."(SGMA, 2010) Free play has been shown to produce higher levels of physical activity than organized sports. One study found that 43 percent of youth sports practice was spent being inactive. (Physical Activity During Youth Sport Practices, 2011)There's a lack of mainstream options for the moderately interested athlete. As soon as travel teams are formed, in-town rec leagues often begin to fade. As kids move into adolescence, there's also less support for intramurals than in the past. About 23 percent of middle schools and 40 percent of high schools do not offer intramural sports (Bridging the Gap, RWJF, 2012)
Community Development Block Grants provide up to $100 million annually in support. States and cities also received a one-time boost with the 2009 economic stimulus package, which provided funds for parks, gyms and playgrounds. Still, local municipalities are often unable to provide sufficient places to play, especially for children in predominantly African American and Hispanic neighborhoods. Federal matching funds for urban parks have been slashed over the past decade, as has support from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which helped get more than 40,000 outdoor recreation projects built, most of them between the 1960s and 1980. In 2013, only 13 percent of the $305 million flowing into the fund was allocated to the program that provides matching grants for cities and states (National Recreation and Parks Association). In other areas, such as Colorado Springs, Colo., cuts to local budgets have made difficult the upkeep of existing public parks.
High school athletes account for an estimated two million concussions and other injuries, 500,000 doctor visits and 30,000 hospitalizations each year. More than 3.5 million children under age 14 receive medical treatment for sports injuries annually. According to the CDC, more than half of all sports injuries are preventable. Overuse injuries are responsible for nearly half of all sports injuries to middle and high school students (STOP Sports Injuries).
One study found that when coaches received training in skills and communicating effectively with kids, only five percent of children chose not to play the sport again. With untrained coaches, the attrition rate was 26 percent (Smoll and Smith, 1992). Yet, most youth coaches do not receive any training. Only 1 in 5 coaches of youth teams of children under age 14 say they have been trained in effective motivational technique, and just 1 in 3 in skills and tactics in the primary sport they coach, according to data produced for Project Play by SFIA through a survey of 43,000 households in 2013.
Direct and Indirect Consequences
Falling sport participation rates
Most of our largest sports are seeing major drop-offs in participation, as organized opportunities consolidate around the most talented, committed or well-resourced players. Among children ages 6-12, participation rates have declined in basketball (down 3.9 percent since 2008), baseball (14.4 percent), soccer (10.7 percent), softball (31.3 percent), and football (29 percent). Some newer, smaller sports have seen increases; lacrosse, most notably. Hockey, due in part to major policy interventions, has reversed declines. But on balance, millions of kids and teens are fleeing sports.
The espnW/Aspen Institute Project Play Survey of Parents (see above) shows concerns on a range of issues, coaching and injury risks above all. About a quarter of parents have considered keeping their child out of a sport due to concussion risks, with tackle football registering the greatest level of concern. In an earlier survey, parents of boys under age 15 more often have a favorable opinion of the NFL (71 percent), MLB (68 percent) and NBA (58 percent) than they do of their community youth football (49 percent), baseball (57 percent) and basketball (49 percent) leagues (ESPN, 2012). One bright spot is that 9 out of 10 parents of children on elite, travel teams are happy with their kid's coach (ESPN Magazine, University of Florida SPARC, 2013).
Low physical activity rates
Starting at age 9 -- when children often develop a self-concept of whether or not they are an athlete -- physical activity rates begin to drop sharply. By age 15, moderate-to-vigorous physical activity declines 75 percent, a higher rate than in Europe (Designed to Move, 2012). At that point, they average only 49 minutes per weekday and 35 minutes per weekend (Journal of the American Medical Association, 2008). Among kids ages 6-17, one in five youth are considered inactive, meaning they report no physical activity (Physical Activity Council, 2015). Further, only one in three children is physically active every day (Fitness.gov). Among high school students, that figure is 28.7 percent. The prevalence of having been active on a daily basis was higher among male (38.3 percent) than female (18.5 percent) students; higher among white male (40.4 percent), black male (35.2), and Hispanic male (35.6) than white female (19.7), black female (16.9), and Hispanic female (16.9) students (CDC, 2012). The downstream results of developing sedentary lifestyles: In 2014, the number of inactives ages 6+ grew to 28.3 percent (82.7 million) of the U.S. population, the highest rate in the last six years (Physical Activity Council, 2015).
Childhood obesity rates have nearly tripled. The percentage of children ages 6-11 who are obese increased from 7 percent in 1980 to 18 percent in 2010; among children ages 12 to 19, that figure grew from 5 percent to 18 percent (Centers for Disease Control). One study found that among 17 developed nations, the U.S. had the highest rates of childhood obesity among those ages 5-19 (National Academy of Sciences, 2013). There are significant racial and ethnic disparities in obesity prevalence, with Hispanics and African Americans experiencing higher rates than whites (CDC, 2010).
More than a quarter of all Americans between the ages of 17 to 24 are too fat to serve in the military. Many are turned away by recruiters and others never try to join. Of those who attempt to join, roughly 15,000 fail their entrance physicals every year because they are overweight. Obesity rates among children and young adults have increased so dramatically that they threaten the future strength of our military. (Too Fat to Fight, 2010)
Direct and indirect medical costs related to obesity are estimated at $147 billion a year, twice the size of the budget for the U.S. Department of Education. Direct costs are expected to more than double by 2030. Adults who are obese will face decreased earning potential, and employers will pay in the form increased health care costs. (Designed to Move, 2012).
Today's children are likely to be the first generation to live shorter, less healthy lives than their parents due to obesity and other related diseases. (Designed to Move)
Opportunities for Progress
Stakeholders want guidance, solutions. A full 91 percent of Americans say sports are important to child development, while 94 percent say more needs to be done to protect their health and safety (Kelton Research, ACSM, 2011). Concerns about concussions, other injuries and burnout are prompting organizations to revise policies and practices. Health groups are also starting to better mobilize around using sport as a tool to encourage exercise.
Getting kids active is now recognized as key obesity prevention strategy. In a 2014 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers analyzed obesity prevention strategies and their ability to reduce obesity by the year 2032. They found that afterschool physical activity programs would reduce obesity the most, 1.8 percent, among children ages 6 to 12. That's twice the impact as a ban on child-directed fast-food advertising.