An important youth development activity is looking to end a recent losing streak.
Participation in organized youth sports leagues for baseball, football, basketball and soccer declined by 4 percent between 2008-12, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.
National experts speculate on several reasons for this decline including the squeeze on family finances caused by the recession, increased concern about injury and too many kids playing video games instead of the real thing.
“The whole picture to me is very concerning,” said Dr. Bill Dexter, president of the American College of Sports Medicine. “It’s very clear that kids who participate are more likely to be healthy and stay active throughout their lives.”
Dr. Michael Bergeron, who leads the National Youth Sports Health and Safety Institute, agrees. “It’s a concerning issue because all of us who are involved with youth sports know the value to kids of sports participation.”
Without discounting the importance of other extracurricular activities — from marching band to math bowl, from the sciences to the arts — playing organized team sports can have a positive effect on healthy youth development.
The Journal of Sports Medicine reported that youth who are active in sports enjoy increased physical fitness and emotional health including a decreased likelihood of depression, suicide and other high risk behaviors. These positive impacts are likely to remain into their adult years.
“The biggest concern I have as a physician is inactivity,” Dexter explained. “The U.S. Surgeon General recently stated that physical inactivity is the leading health issue of our day. The concern is that these children are less active, less fit, less healthy and that creates problems across the board. There’s a huge concern from a public health standpoint.”
This especially is true for girls. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) found that girls and young women who play sports are less likely to use illegal drugs, be overweight, suffer from depression, smoke or become teen parents before marriage.
However, the health benefits of youth sports now are being weighed against growing concern over injury — especially head injuries in football and soccer. Parents should ask about the safety training provided to coaches — many of whom are volunteers — as well as the procedures followed when a child is hurt.
“Most of these sports, when they’re coached and refereed properly, can be very, very safe,” Dexter said. “We have proven ways to mitigate (injury) such as getting kids involved in multiple activities. The kids who are overscheduled and overworked while focusing on one sport seem to be at the highest risk for injury.”
Team sports also have positive social consequences. The USADA study discovered that youth who play sports have stronger family and peer relationships, are more likely to volunteer in their local community and are more likely to register to vote.
Bergeron said teamwork is a great teacher. “(Youth sports) particularly are effective when kids can be on that team and be with their friends. There are social advantages to being part of something, of feeling that sense of shared success.”
Sports participation also develops life skills such as goal setting and the work ethic needed to accomplish those goals. Time management skills are developed from showing up for practice on time to handling the final minute of a close game to balancing sports with homework and other responsibilities.
Playing sports also prepares young athletes to become working adults. Kids in sports are more likely to receive higher grades and complete more years of formal education. In addition, young people learn workplace skills when they receive instruction and correction from coaches and decisions from referees and umpires.
The best way to continue these positive results is to ensure that children and youth are enjoying the activity. The Journal of Sports Medicine discovered that the main reason children play sports is “fun.” The main reason for parents: “winning.”
“One thing that concerns me is that it may not be as much fun anymore,” Dexter said. “Let the kids play. Let the kids have fun. Why do kids participate? To have fun and be with friends. Why do they stop? Because it’s no longer fun.”
Bill Stanczykiewicz is president and chief executive officer of the Indiana Youth Institute. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.