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Why Do Parents Want Kids to Play Sports? Fame and Fortune, Obviously

23 Sep, 2015

By: Tracey Schelmetic
New Study of Americans’ Sports Participation Habits Reveals Hopes for College Scholarships, Pro Careers, Unrealistic Expectations

There is strong evidence that most parents of middle- and high-school students today believe that playing sports is of value to their children, whether it’s to improve health and fitness, fill in the time after school, foster the idea of teamwork or simply because they hope for college scholarships. There is also evidence that parents don’t have particularly realistic expectations of their youth athletes, and that opportunity gaps exist depending on gender and family income.  

A new report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health entitled, “Sports and Health in America” found that in America today, more than three quarters (76 percent) of parents of children in middle or high school say they encourage their child to play sports. While this is good news, a significant percentage of parents have unrealistic expectations, with more than one in four parents (26 percent) whose high school-aged child plays sports saying they hope their child will become a professional athlete. (The real number, needless to say, can be measured in fractions of one percent.)

The study also uncovered a widening gender gap as young people grow up. While there is only a small gender gap in sports participation between school-aged boys and girls (76 percent and 70 percent, respectively), this gap widens dramatically when young people reach adulthood. In adults, men are more than twice as likely as women (35 percent to 16 percent, respectively) to say they engage in sports.

The income gap is just as stark. Lower-income adults participate in sports less than half as often as higher income adults. Only 15 percent of lower-income adults (defined as household income of less than $25,000 per year) engage in sports, while 37 percent of adults in households with income of at least $75,000 per year report playing sports. While lack of time and job responsibilities can account for this gap, it also affects their children.

“When parents whose child plays sports were asked about problems that make it difficult for their child to continue participating, about one in three parents (32 percent) who are less well-off (household incomes less than $50,000 per year) say that sports cost too much, while just one in six parents (16 percent) who are more well-off (household incomes $50,000 per year or more) say that sports cost too much,” according to the report’s authors.

Other studies have noted that when youth sports ceased to be about neighborhood games in local parks and fields and more about formal leagues and travel teams, participation of lower-income youth drops. Equipment costs money, and travel teams are often expected to shoulder a lot of the increasingly significant costs.

For many youth athletes today, realistic expectations on the part of parents, plus setting a good example (one or more parents continuing to play sports into adulthood) can help frame a better youth sports experience. The survey found that while a majority of adults in the U.S. today – 73 percent -- reported they played a sport when they were younger, only one four adults today continue to play sports into adulthood. To set a good example to youth athletes, parents need to lower the pressure and the expectations and set a better example themselves.

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