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Youth Sports Struggles with Declining Participation, Increasing Costs, Bad Coaches

14 Nov, 2018

By: Michael Popke

What’s wrong with youth sports? Plenty, if you believe data published in October by The Aspen Institute, an international nonprofit think tank based in Washington, D.C. Titled “State of Play 2018,” the report gathers participation data and coaching metrics from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, provides additional insights and identifies steps to make youth sports more accessible.

Despite more children between the ages of 6 and 12 being physically active in 2017, they’re still not getting enough exercise, according to the report. Fewer than 25 percent of kids regularly participate in high-calorie-burning sports, and that number is falling.

Another disconcerting revelation is that most volunteer youth coaches are “winging it.”

According to the report:

The latest SFIA survey shows that less than four in 10 youth coaches say they are trained in any of the following areas: sport skills and tactics, effective motivational technique or safety needs (CPR/basic first aid and concussion management).

Many barriers exist to training the nation’s 6.5 million youth coaches, most of whom are volunteers. The churn rate is high, with most parents cycling out once their child leaves the sport or moves to a club. Parents also are pressed for time, and organizations are reluctant to ask them for more of it to get trained. Then there’s the cost — even an online training course can run $25.

But that’s not all. The report continues:

Children from lower-income homes face increasing barriers to participation. While inactivity rates for the overall population are down, most gains are among kids from upper-income homes who can better afford the growing fees associated with youth sports. Over the past three years in households with incomes of less than $25,000, fewer kids are participating in sports. It’s the same story with kids from homes with $25,000 to $49,999 in income.

“Everyone thinks from the Olympic medal count, we have the best youth sports system in the world,” Lisa Delpy Neirotti, an associate professor at George Washington University who studies youth sports, told The Washington Post.“But when you look at some of the sports, these are things parents pay for. If we’re really looking at being a more inclusive and healthier society, we should probably get these kids playing together more out on the field — everybody, not just certain populations that can afford it.”

“There’s nothing wrong with being competitive and playing higher competition,” added Jon Solomon of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program. “But what happens is it prices out certain kids, and you get kids to believe that by a certain age, they have to play on a travel team.”

In 2008, almost 45 percent of kids between 6 and 12 regularly played a team sport, according to Aspen’s data; a decade later, that figure is down to 37 percent.

The Aspen Institute’s Project Play “offers a conceptual framework that helps stakeholders from across sectors understand how they can work together to serve the interests of children, communities, and public health,” and the report includes ideas for how individuals and organizations can make change.

Those ideas include the creation of Project Play 2020, a multiyear effort featuring a collective of representatives from leagues, corporations, tech and media companies, and other organizations (some of them competitors) with the common goal of increasingyouth sports participation rates nationally and making sport accessible to all kids, regardless of zip code or ability. Some of the group’s ideas include offering free “How to Coach Kids” training and parent engagement courses.

Access the “State of Play 2018” report here, and read more about Project Play 2020 here.

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