Participation in sports by children and adolescents is associated with a range of documented physical, emotional, social, educational and other benefits that can last into adulthood. But increasingly, many young people opt out of a sustained experience, while others are locked out due to a lack of resources or access to community programs that meet their needs.
The most robust data tracking the sport participation patterns of Americans on an annual basis is produced through a household survey conducted by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA). In 2007, according to SFIA, 44.7% of youth ages 13-17 were active three times a week in any sport activity, organized or unstructured; by 2014 that number had dropped to 39.8%. The trend was more pronounced among 6-12 year olds, falling from 34.7% to 26.9%, with most sports seeing a dropoff in total participants.
The decline is rooted in many factors, and not just screen-time diversions. 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, today's barriers to sport participation, and the consequences of physical inactivity:
Regular physical activity benefits health 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). Exercise is one of the least expensive ways to stay healthy, with one study finding that exercise can prevent chronic diseases as effectively as medication (British Journal of Medicine, 2013).
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). Three-in-four (77%) of adults aged 30+ who play sports today played sports as school-aged children. Only 3% of adults who play sports currently did not play when they were young (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard University/NPR, 2015).
Educational and Career Benefits
Organized sports activity helps children develop and improve cognitive skills, according to a study of that tracked kids from kindergarten through fourth grade (Piche, 2014). Physical activity in general is associated with improved academic achievement, including grades and standardized test scores. Further, such activity can affect 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). The benefits extend to the workplace. A survey of 400 female corporate executives found 94% played a sport and that 61% say that has contributed to their career success (EY Women Athletes Business Network/espnW, 2014).
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). A correlation has been found between regular exercise and mental health among students in general as they move into the teenage years. Among students who exercised 6 to 7 days a week, 25.1% felt sad for two weeks or more in the past 12 months, compared to 35.7% of students who reported exercising on 0 to 1 day. Of students who exercised 6-7 days, 15% reported suicidal ideation, and 6.4% reported a suicide attempt in the past year, compared to 24.6% and 10.3% of students who exercised 0-1 day, respectively (Journal of American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 2015).
Parents appreciate these benefits. Asked about the positive effects playing sports has had for their children, they pointed to: physical health (88%), giving the child something to do (83%), teaching discipline or dedication (81%), teaching how to get along with others (78%), mental health (73%), social life (65%), skills to help in future schooling (56%), and skills to help in a future career (55%), according to the RWJF/Harvard/NPR survey in 2015.
Find more benefits 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% of U.S. households report an annual income of at least $100,000, 33% 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. In 2015, about one in three parents (32%) from households making less than $50,000/year told researchers that sports cost too much and make it difficult for their child to continue participating. That is compared to the one in six parents (16%) from households making $50,000/year or more who said the same.
As adults, the disparity between participation based on income levels continues. Only 15% of lower-income (household incomes less than $25,000/year) adults play sports, while 37% of those of higher-income do (household incomes of $75,000/year or more) (RWJF/Harvard/NPR).
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).
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% of eighth graders play sports. For "high socio-economic schools," it's 36.1%. Despite major gains in among girls over the past four decades delivered by Title IX legislation and enforcement, in 2012, the participation rates for girls remained 2-5% lower than for boys (Bridging the Gap, RWJF, 2012). A 2015 study suggests that gap may be closer to 6% (RWJF/Harvard/NPR). As adults, the gender gap is more pronounced: 35% of men say they play sports, while only 16% of women say the same thing (RWJF/Harvard/NPR).
In Washington, D.C., the percentage of athletic opportunities provided to public high school students has been as low as 15% for boys and 6% for girls (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%), Florida the lowest for boys (30%) (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. More than 40% of parents whose child plays an organized sport say their child does so year-round (RWJF/Harvard/NPR). Yet, free play has been shown to produce higher levels of physical activity than organized sports. One study found that 43% 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. About 23% of middle schools and 40% of high schools do not offer intramural sports (Bridging the Gap, RWJF, 2012). In communities with fewer resources, sport options can be especially are organized around the more motivated athletes and families. Parents from lower-income households are nearly twice as likely to say they hope their child will become a professional athlete than those from the higher-income homes (39% vs. 20%), according to the RWJF/Harvard/NPR survey.
Half of all vigorous exercise engaged in by Americans occurs in parks. People who live closer to parks report better mental health. Time spent in green outdoor spaces has been shown to boost focus and concentration, and kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) experience milder symptoms when they play outside in a natural setting. But in some cities as many as two-thirds of children are without access to a nearby park (The Trust for Public Land). The deficits are greatest in predominantly African American and Hispanic neighborhoods.
Community Development Block Grants provide up to $100 million annually in support. Still, 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% 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, 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 5% of children chose not to play the sport again. With untrained coaches, the attrition rate was 26% (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 2013 data produced for Project Play by SFIA.
Children today often spend many hours in front of screens (mobile phones, computers, video games, TV), with products that have gotten better at getting and keeping their attention. Even for those who are playing sports, these sedentary hobbies are competing interests in getting kids active through sports, according to parents (RWJF/Harvard/NPR).
Direct and Indirect Consequences
Falling sport participation rates
Most of our sports are experiencing major drop-offs in participation, as the chart at the top of this page shows. Gymnastics and a few smaller, newer activities have seen increases; lacrosse and ultimate frisbee, most notably. Hockey, due in part to policy interventions including the banning of body checking and improved coach training, has reversed declines over the past five years. But on balance, fewer kids are playing team sports, the most common activity among children. In 2014, 26.6 million children ages 6-17 played one of these sports, down 3.7 percent over the past five years.
Further, as the youth sports industry encourages families to focus their children on a limited number of sports, the total number sports that each child plays annually has declined, from 2.14 to 2.01 sports. That creates a compounding effect, limiting the number of aggregate experiences enjoyed. Total participation (participants X sports per participant) is down 9.3% among youth (SFIA, 2015).
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 less often have a favorable opinion of community youth football (49%), baseball (57%) and basketball (49%) leagues than those at the other end of the sport pipeline -- the NFL (71%), MLB (68%) and NBA (58%) (ESPN, 2012).
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%, 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%. The prevalence of having been active on a daily basis was higher among male (38.3%) than female (18.5%) students; higher among white male (40.4%), 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). Meanwhile, more children each year are completely inactive, with one in five youth ages 6 to 17 not engaging in any activity, according to SFIA. The downstream results of developing sedentary lifestyles: In 2014, the number of inactives ages 6+ grew to 28.3% (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% in 1980 to 17.5% in 2014; among children ages 12 to 19, that figure grew from 5% to 20.5% (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2015). 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, 2015).
More than a quarter of all Americans between the ages of 17 to 24 are too obese 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)
Levels of physical activity inadequate to meet current guidelines are associated with a significant financial burden for the U.S. health care system, as much as $131 billion a year (CDC, 2015). 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). In total, lifetime societal costs are $92,235 greater for a person with obesity, and if all 12.7 million U.S. youth with obesity became obese adults, the societal costs over their lifetimes may exceed $1.1 trillion. (Brookings Institute, 2015)
Opportunities for Progress
Science is supporting the role of sport in health promotion. 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 afterschool physical activity programs would reduce obesity the most, 1.8% among children ages 6 to 12. That's twice the projected impact as any ban on child-directed fast-food advertising. An earlier study, of college students, found that “motives for sport participation are more desirable than those for exercise and may facilitate improved adherence to physical activity recommendations (Kilpatrick, Journal of American College Health, 2005).
Stakeholders want solutions, guidance. In the U.S., sport is widely recognized as a tool of child development and health promotion, with 75% of parents of children in middle or high school saying they encourage participation (NPR/Harvard/RWJF, 2015). But 94% of parents say more needs to be done to protect their children's health and safety in youth sports (Kelton Research, ACSM, 2011). Through initiatives such as Project Play, stakeholders are coming together to address gaps and identify breakthrough strategies.
Citations for the above charts can be found in the Project Play report, Sport for All, Play for Life: A Playbook to Get Every Kid in the Game. Additional charts and insights can be found in the Project Play report, Physical Literacy in the United States.