Rethinking Teen Sports

Youth sports have been proven to offer teens substantial benefits. Unfortunately, almost half of youth stop playing sports by the time they get to high school. The way our nation currently views youth sports doesn’t set most teens up to participate. This article will examine the reasons sports are invaluable for our teens, the reasons more teens aren’t participating in sports, and the actions we can take to improve the situation.

Benefits of Teen Sports

A lot of research has been done on youth sports, and the results have been consistent across these studies. Teens who participate in sports obtain these benefits:

  • Improved Academics. Participation in high school sports is linked to better grades. Physically active kids have a more positive attitude toward school, perform better on academic tests and are more likely to attend college. One might think that playing a sport might be a distraction from schoolwork, but that idea just doesn’t stand up in scientific research. Perhaps because sports require memorization, learning, goal-setting, and determination, students hone skills that translate well to the classroom setting.
  • Improved Physical Health. It makes sense that participating in sports improves an individual’s fitness, but you might be surprised how far reaching those benefits go. Research has shown that sports encourage healthy decision-making in teens such as not smoking, drinking, or using drugs. The exercise in sports improves teens’ strength and emotional stability, while reducing their chances for heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and cancer later on in life. Additionally, youth that are physically active are less likely to be obese, which is an epidemic in our nation.
  • Improved Teamwork and Problem-Solving Skills. Sports are inherently filled with obstacles, so participants must strengthen their problem-solving skills and resiliency. If a teen is participating in a team sport, they get the additional advantage of fighting for a common goal with a group of players and learning to effectively communicate. Additionally, they have a built-in social network in a team, offering social acceptance.
  • Improved Self-Esteem. Research has shown that being part of a sports team is a protective factor against depression and helps adolescents form their own identity outside of their family and the classroom. Additionally, youth that work hard at sports and achieve their goals develop better confidence.
  • Reduced Stress. Exercising is a natural and positive way to cope with stress. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins that help you feel positive.

Reasons More Teens Aren’t Playing Sports

Despite the great benefits listed above, only about half of high school students are participating in youth sports. Research has shown several reasons for this trend. Teens responding to surveys give these reasons for not participating:

  • Lost interest in the sport
  • Have too much homework
  • School doesn’t offer a sport that interests them
  • Wasn’t fun anymore (too much pressure or focus on winning)
  • Didn’t feel talented / good enough

Ways We Can Improve Sports Participation Among Youth

Not every teenager wants to participate in physical activities, nor should they be forced to. There are adolescents who prefer drama, robotics, art, cooking, music, and many other valuable pursuits. However, our current culture seems to place our teens in categories. This teen is athletic, but this teen is artistic. In reality, humans are much more diverse than that, and teens who are working on forming their identities should have the opportunity to explore as many different activities as possible. Perhaps an artistic youth might also excel in archery, or a soccer star might also be a great singer. Additionally, youth sports in the United States seems to emphasize finding the “best” athletes rather than encouraging as many kids as possible to play and be physically active.

Let’s consider ways that we can increase the number of more well-rounded teens who are able to obtain the benefits of staying physically active.

Explore Alternative Sports. Schools are set up for traditional sports. If your student isn’t interested in football, basketball, baseball, track or soccer, they might assume that sports aren’t for them. Consider community clubs or intramural sports that might offer alternative sports. Your teen might really be interested in trying other physical activities such as biking, martial arts, rowing, archery, skateboarding and rock climbing. If your teen knows more students who are interested in an alternative sport, approach your school to see if they would be willing to establish an intramural or club sport.

Rethink Competition. It is important that the most talented athletes have an opportunity to compete at the highest levels and develop their skills against challenging competition, just as the youth with the best acting talent should get the leads in a school play. However, that shouldn’t mean that only the talented athletes get to play a sport. There should be additional leagues and opportunities for students who are interested in playing but are not good enough to achieve the varsity or junior varsity level. We should all be aiming to give as many kids as possible a positive sports experience that would lead them to become more active adults.

Find the Fun. Surveys of youth provide interesting insight into what makes sports enjoyable. According to youth, having fun in sports includes things like getting playing time, trying their best, playing well, bonding with teammates, and exercising and being active. Things youth identified as not fun includes winning, playing in tournaments, practicing with specialty trainers and coaches, earning medals or trophies, traveling to new places to play, and getting pictures taken.

Prevent Burnout. Many children report losing interest in their sport of choice. The most effective way to prevent burnout is to introduce your kids to a variety of physical activities from a young age, not just sports, and let them choose which activities and sports they’d like to do at different times of the year. Maybe they could ski in the winter, do the school play in the spring, play baseball in the summer, and tennis in the fall. When a child focuses on one activity or sport too early, they may grow bored and even physically exhausted. Additionally, single-sport athletes are at a much higher risk of injury from using the same set of muscles over and over. These repetitive motions cause shin splints, stress fractures, and tendinitis. For more information on these overuse injuries, please read our previous blog.

Keep Perspective. Many parents push their children into competitive sports because they are hoping it will gain them an athletic scholarship or improve their chances of college acceptance. We need to be more realistic. Only 3% of high school athletes play at the college level, and less than 1% go on to play professional sports. Few athletes ever receive an athletic scholarship, and if they do, they are often only a few thousand dollars for all four years, which is barely a drop in the bucket. Your student will actually have a more competitive college application with a well-rounded resume. Ironically, youth who play multiple sports tend to have higher self-esteem, feel less lonely, and develop healthier behaviors.

Final Thoughts…

Increasing sports participation among youth is a good idea for their physical and mental well-being. To do that, we need to improve the culture that surrounds sports and offer alternative sports and leagues to interest a wider variety of teens.

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