It’s no secret by now that kids need physical activity to grow up physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy. But are gym classes and park visits enough, or do kids need organized sports activities through their school and community? In the past couple decades, the face of children’s organized athletics has changed rapidly, leading some to question whether highly organized physical activity is the best avenue for children to develop life-long exercise habits.
Decline in Youth Sports
In September of 2017, the Sports and Fitness Industry Association and the Aspen Institute jointly published some data that was concerning for children’s health educators. Over the last decade, athletic participation for kids ages 6-12 has dropped from 45% to 35%. The numbers are even worse for children coming from households with low income. As part of the annual Project Play summit, SFIA and Aspen have teamed up with MLB, the NBA, and over a dozen other groups in the athletics industry to send a message to parents: let kids have informal play and practice several sports rather than focus intensely on the child’s participation in one formal athletic team.
Why are these industry professionals discouraging formal sports for kids? It’s become an unhealthy environment. Children’s athletic teams have dramatically risen in cost for families, sometimes excluding those with lower incomes. Both the stress and time these formal sports consume are increasingly seen as ‘not worth it’ for children and their families. On top of that, studies have found that the majority of youth coaches don’t have sufficient training. While 60-80% of private school teachers and around 56% of public school teachers have advanced degrees and certification standards like CPR and first aid, only 29% of youth sports coaches have CPR and basic first aid training. Training for basic safety and injury prevention is not much better; only 32% of coaches reported that training to the Aspen Institute.
Challenges With Young Adults and College Athletics
Say a child loves a sport growing up. They’re good at it. They may even get a college scholarship for it. What can go wrong?
College athletes have struggled with balancing their schoolwork and athletic obligations as long as there have been organized sports teams in colleges, but it feels like college sports are more high-stakes than ever. Students are pressured to keep up performance and grades simultaneously. There’s controversy where popular school teams use their players’ faces and names for profit on merchandise and the like, but the players see none of that profit. Injuries can throw off a college athlete’s whole life, even forcing them to transfer schools if they can no longer participate in their sport and have scholarship revoked.
Of the 98% of college athletes who graduate and don’t end up on a professional team, many often discontinue a majority of their good health habits. Without the structure and pressure of college sports pressing them on, the intrinsic motivation to go to the gym or skip dessert can be lacking. There’s been another mental issue with matriculated college athletes: they lose a part of their identity after their graduation. When a young adult has spent a large portion of their life identifying with an organized sport and team, they can often go into a psychological state akin to mourning when they enter the workforce.
It’s not that organized sports are “bad”. It’s that they’re being mishandled, and kids are getting the negative effects.
The Rise Of Alternative Exercise
This is how we end up with statistics like 67% of gym memberships going unused. When children are placed into hectic worlds of over-organized athletics, intrinsic motivation and excitement for healthy choices can plummet.
Just as there is an emergence of higher-intensity sports for children younger in age, there has been a counter-emergence of parents and childcare professionals pushing for less organized physical activity and alternative exercise. It’s not only adults contributing to the 74% increase in spending on yoga products over the past five years, some school systems are adopting practices like yoga to teach kids physical self-care.
Other schools and communities are switching to touch or flag football for young kids to cut down on sports injuries, and encouraging informal club meetings for enthusiastic young athletes.
The Aspen Institute’s Project Play presentation further supports the idea that physical activity is the key to children growing into healthy adults, not necessarily organized sports. The assumption is that children typically have adequate character-building structure in school and home rules without physical activity being over-structured as well. See what happens when they just… play.