Youth sports study: Declining participation, rising costs and unqualified coaches – Washington Post

The crisis in youth sports — skyrocketing costs, sport specialization, coaches needing training — grew deeper in 2016, according to data collected by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association and the Aspen Institute.

Coaches, professional sports officials and academic researchers will gather in the District on Wednesday and Thursday at Aspen’s annual Project Play Summit to try to solve the alarming problems facing kids, and parents who want them to have an active lifestyle. Aspen and SFIA released new data in advance of the conference to highlight participation trends and new methods to create opportunities for more kids to play.

Here are the biggest takeaways from the data:

Youth sports participation is down

Almost 45 percent of kids ages 6 to 12 played a team sport regularly in 2008, according to Aspen data. Now only about 37 percent of kids do.

Experts blame that trend on what they call an “up or out” mentality in youth sports. Travel leagues have crept into increasingly younger age groups, and choose the most talented kids for their teams. The kids left behind either grow unsatisfied on regular recreational teams or get the message that the sport isn’t for them, said Tom Farrey, executive director of Aspen’s Sports and Society program.

“Fundamentally, youth sports have been reshaped by the chase for the athletic scholarship,” he said.

That’s pushed hypercompetitive selection processes into younger age groups — some basketball analysts rank the nation’s best kindergartners — and ravaged traditional recreational leagues whose purpose is to get kids playing rather than winning games.

The “big four” are taking losses

The easiest metric to gauge the cratering of local rec leagues is to look at the “big four” American youth sports: baseball, basketball, soccer and football (tackle and flag). All four sports have suffered the most severe losses of any of the 15 team sports SFIA and Aspen surveyed.

The only sports that saw growth over the past eight years were golf, gymnastics, ice hockey, and track and field.

A lot of this has to do with money

Yes, money, measured in average household income, is the largest indicator of whether a child is going to be physically active or play sports, the data shows.

And whether children are physically active, Farrey said, is another of the largest indicators as to what kind of adult that child will become.

“There’s reams and reams of research on this,” he said. “Kids who are physically active are less likely to be obese. They’re better in the classroom. They go to college. They’re more likely to be active parents. And because of that, their kids are more active.”

But children from households making less than $25,000 a year are half as likely to have played a day’s worth of team sports as kids from households making at least $100,000.

Youth sports make up a $15 billion industry, according to a recent Time Magazine cover story, between costs for equipment, uniforms, travel, lodging, registration fees and so much more. And as elite travel teams reach into younger age groups, coaching often becomes privatized, too.

“There’s been this presumption that youth sports are exploding in this country and private clubs and trainers will pick up the slack,” Farrey said. “For kids with resources, they have. But families without resources are getting left behind.”

For all that money, coaches are still unqualified

Seven in 10 youth sports coaches are not trained in six core competencies required to be a qualified coach, according to SFIA and Aspen’s data.

Those competencies are: general safety and injury prevention, effective motivational techniques, CPR and basic first aid, physical conditioning, concussion management, and sport-specific skills and tactics.

Yes, roughly 70 percent of coaches have not been trained on how to coach their sport.

There’s also barely any diversity in the youth coaching ranks. More than 70 percent of youth coaches for both boys’ and girls’ sports are male. Half of all coaches’ households make at least $100,000 per year.


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