What’s the Solution to Declining Youth Sports Participation Numbers?

For more than a century, youth sports have played an important role in the childhood development of America’s young people. But ever since the turn of the 21st century, participation numbers have been declining. Why is this? And what can we do about it?

Exploring the Root of the Problem

It’s easy to look at the size of the kids sports industry – nearly $17 billion – and assume that it’s alive and well. However, dwindling participation rates in organized youth sports leagues tells a different story.

According to a report from the Aspen Institute, the share of children ages 6 to 12 who play a team sport declined from 41.5 percent in 2011 to just 37 percent in 2017. Participation rates are lower in almost every team sport, including football, basketball, soccer, and baseball. In the latter case, participation is down roughly 20 percent!

Even more alarming is the fact that participation rates get worse with age. In 2018, 56 percent of teenage girls and 48 percent of teenage boys did not participate in a sport. (Interestingly enough, there’s also a correlation to academics. Children who don’t play youth sports tend to have lower grades and are less likely to attend college.)

If you study the long-term graph of youth sports participation over the past few decades, you’ll see that these declines have developed over the course of many years. However, things have recently accelerated. If nothing is done to stop this steep decline, the future of youth sports in America could be in serious jeopardy.

Possible Solutions for a Frustrating Trend

With youth sports participation numbers continuing to decline, it’s important that we focus on quick solutions that have a long-term impact. This will require a lot of trial and error, but there are some important focal points we need to look at and address.

  • Educate Parents and Children

If a parent didn’t grow up playing youth sports – or if they’re unaware of all the important benefits of playing youth sports – they might not encourage their children to participate. This is why we need a greater emphasis on the education of parents and children.

Educating parents on the value of youth sports participation could be as simple as placing brochures in pediatrician offices, or as involved as pushing out national promotional campaigns. We need more people to take up this cause.

  • Stop the Emphasis on Hyperspecialization 

As athletic scholarships have become more competitive and prized among parents, many have persuaded their children to hyperspecialize in a single sport at the expense of all others. Not only does this lead to higher rates of burnout and eventual disinterest in the sport, but it also results in much higher injury rates.

Hyperspecialization makes sense for adults, but it’s unfair and ineffective to allow/force children to only focus on one sport. At a time when their muscles are still developing, they need to be exposed to an array of movements and exercise.

Another interesting thing happens when children are allowed to play multiple sports. Instead of feeling the drudgery of repetitive practices and routines, they’re given the space and freedom to discover different sports that they like. This makes them more willing athletes, which encourages continued participation.

  • Lessen the Time Burden

Modern youth sports are simply too much of a time-suck. Whereas kids used to have one or two practices/games per week, many are now expected to put in hours of time each day – even during the offseason. This dissuades many children and teenagers from participating.

  • Make it More Affordable

Certain sports – particularly baseball, football, and golf – are too expensive for all children to enjoy. In fact, the Aspen Institute study reveals that just 34 percent of children from families earning less than $25,000 per year play a team sport (compared to 69 percent of children from homes earning six figures). Thus, one of the keys to increasing participation is to make youth sports more affordable. A greater emphasis on local rec leagues, as opposed to travel teams, would make youth sports more accessible to all.

Restoring the Vibrancy of Youth Sports

If you speak to many adults over the age of 30 – and particularly those in their later years of life – you’ll find that youth sports played a significant role in shaping them into the people they’ve become. Unfortunately, it looks like many in today’s generation might not have this same opportunity.

We owe it to our children (and all future children) to restore youth sports by encouraging greater participation across the board. How will you play a role in this shift?