Looking back on your youth, I am sure many of you have memories of playing sports floating around in your head, bumping into tire swings and paper mâche sculptures of armadillos. Some of the memories might be moments of frustration or failure (like that time you threw up on the pool deck before your race and they had to stop the meet to clean it up), but most of them are happy, sunny thoughts of friends and fun. Whether those memories are from little league, soccer, ballet, or any other organized athletic squad, doesn’t really matter. Sports have played a largely positive role in many people’s lives. If this does not resonate with you personally, I am sorry. The statistical averages are undeniable.
That sports are a way for youth to stay active is obvious. However, participation in organized athletics does more than just provide a platform for exercise.
“The evidence supporting sports participation for young people is overwhelming…It has the power to combat everything from racism to low self-image, to the high-school drop-out rate.”
-Sue Castle, Executive Producer of PBS Sports: Get in the Gam
Youth sports have been correlated with health and educational benefits, along with skill development opportunities. On the surface level, sports offer kids a great opportunity to make friends and build self-confidence. Looking deeper, they provide youth with a framework to develop skills like leadership, organization and time management. Youth who play sports have also been shown to have a healthier diet, better mental health and higher academic performance than their inactive peers. All of these benefits extend after adolescence, too. Kids who play sports when they are young are more likely to be active when they are adults, decreasing their likelihood of encountering disease and mental illness.
So we all agree then, right? Organized sports positively impact young people. Increasing opportunities for kids to participate in those activities will benefit them in the short and long term. And yet, in recent years we have observed a decline in youth participation in the top mainstream sports. Although there are a number of reasons for this decline, some of the forerunners are a lack of enjoyment, safety concerns, and cost burdens.
Part of the problem comes from the recent trend toward single sport participation causing burnout in young athletes. Michael Bergeron, Executive Director of the National Youth Sports Health & Safety Institute attributed the fall out to specialization, the overworking of kids, and the search for elite talent. Leave it to adults to take the fun out of games. You all remember that coach who pushed too hard, or applied too much pressure, when actually all you cared about was getting better at something and spending time with friends.
Another concern for a lot of parents is rising injury rates. Football in particular has been getting a lot of flack recently over permanent brain and spinal cord injuries caused by both traumatic hits and multiple concussions. President Obama himself said he “would not let his son play pro football.” Ditka said he wouldn’t want his son to play at all.
While both over-competitiveness and risk of injury contribute to decline of youth playing sports across the board, middle-class and low-income youth have even more working against them. As financial burdens of competing in sports rise, kids on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale are losing access to the benefits of sports altogether.The specialized equipment and travel costs limit who can play. Decreases in government funding of programs further discourage these demographics from playing. As a result (along with other factors), young people of color, especially girls, are less active than their white peers.
So that’s it, we should lose hope altogether? Bye bye, benefits. Good luck youth of the world.
Fortunately there is a reverse trend for less-mainstream activities. “Unconventional” sports like ultimate, lacrosse, and hockey have grown in recent years. But alternative options alone do not alleviate the problem completely. Access remains an issue that affects a large population of young people.
How do we get more youth of all demographics to reap the benefits of participating in sports? Lower the financial barriers to getting on the field.
Providing local opportunities for kids to play by building up the local sports infrastructure is one of the best ways to increase low-income youth’s access to sports. Lowering travel costs helps open the playing field to more socioeconomic classes.
The ultimate community is doing a really incredible job increasing opportunities for youth to play, from the top down. USA Ultimate, the national governing body of ultimate, announced at the beginning of October that they were investing heavily in building regional infrastructure that can be self-sustaining. Much of the funding will support growth of opportunities for youth to learn about and play ultimate locally. Then there are the grassroots organizations like All Girl Everything Ultimate Program (AGE UP) and Ultimate Peace who are at the ground level using ultimate as curriculum in their work to bring opportunities to play to the kids instead of the other way around.
Why ultimate? The sport itself is inclusive by design. Both girls and boys can play on the same team at the same time, and with the foundational framework that USA Ultimate is building, there will be more local opportunities to play, lowering costs to little more than a 175 gram disc.
Every kid can benefit from participating in organized sports, and given the opportunity, they will. Then, twenty-odd years later, their memories of epic snapchat battles and paper mâche busts of Beyonce can bump into happy, grass-stained ultimate memories from their youth.