Kids aren't sticking with team sports as long, but it doesn't mean they don't want to play

By Mark Brodie
Published: Friday, January 5, 2024 - 11:11am
Updated: Friday, January 5, 2024 - 1:59pm

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The AZ Diamond Dawgs in Queen Creek
Christian Quezada/Special for Cronkite News
The AZ Diamond Dawgs are an accomplished baseball club out or Queen Creek.

Kids are playing team sports less often. In Arizona, around 42% of kids between the ages of 6-17 played on a team or took lessons between 2020 and 2021.

A new report from the Aspen Institute finds between 2019 and 2022, regular youth team sport participation fell 6% among kids ages 6-17. But kids are generally trying sports as often as they did before the pandemic, even if they’re not playing them as often.

The Show spoke with Jon Solomon, editorial director for the Aspen Institute Sports and Society Program, about their 2023 State of Play report. 

JON SOLOMON: Well, one thing is that regular team sports participation for youth declined between 2019 and 2022, but total participation stayed flat. So the good news is that children ages 6-12 are casually trying sports at a higher rate. They’re just not playing as frequently. So some of that could be due to COVID-19 and the disruptions that occurred. There’s still interest from kids to play. They’re just not playing as frequently as they did previously.

MARK BRODIE: So does that mean, for example, that they’re maybe not like on a little League team or a Pop Warner team or a regular soccer team, but they are sort of playing these sports informally, maybe in a park or with friends or something?

SOLOMON: Correct. It could be they’re just trying out outside with friends and family, could be at recess, could be in P.E. So they’re being exposed to it more, which is good. That’s what we want. They’re just not continuing to stay with it as much and organize team play.

BRODIE: Is there a significance to kids not necessarily playing like organized sports, but just sort of playing more casually?

SOLOMON: You know, it's an interesting question. I mean, organized sports in and of itself isn’t the only way that kids can be physically active, and particularly there are a lot of individual sports. We surveyed kids nationally a couple years ago, this was during the pandemic. And one of the key takeaways was that the menu of traditional high school sport options isn’t really meeting the demand. That of course, there will always be kids who play football and baseball and basketball and soccer — some of these traditional sports we’re used to. But there are many kids who want to try more fitness focused activities, such as yoga or dance or rock climbing or even archery was the top sport high school students said. So increasingly, I think schools and and nonprofit sport providers, even for-profit, need to be thinking about what are different ways that we engage with kids beyond the traditional sports.

BRODIE: That’s really interesting. And I wonder if — you mention private companies and schools — I wonder if maybe there are sort of a burgeoning competition there for schools that offer sort of the traditional sports that you outlined and maybe other companies that are vying for those same kids but are offering things maybe that schools aren’t offering.

SOLOMON: Yeah, I mean, schools are really one of the best places to engage with kids because they’re all right there. Right? I mean, they’re yeah, they’re there for 8-10 hours a day. And so providing programing, particularly after-school programing, not even necessarily the traditional competitive sports it could be, but it could also be intramural sports. It could just be club activities. There’s a lot of value to that. One of the challenges is capacity for schools. And that’s where thinking outside the box and trying to identify community partnerships is really valuable.

BRODIE: So in terms of what you’re seeing for regular sports activity, are you seeing a difference between boys and girls who are who are playing?

SOLOMON: Yeah. You know, one thing that’s interesting is that sports participation is increasing for girls and it’s declining for boys. Now, there’s still a gap. And this was 2022 data from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, and it showed that 40% of boys are regularly playing sports. It’s still higher than girls and 35%, but the two genders are basically going in opposite directions.

BRODIE: Why do you think it is that fewer boys are playing these sports?

SOLOMON: You know, we don’t directly have all the specific results. So it’s not really data driven. But anecdotally, I think one question to ask is whether we’re creating too competitive an environment for all kids, and that includes boys, right? The idea that we’re trying to win games, we’re trying to make high school teams, we’re trying to chase potential college scholarships — when we know that when we ask kids, whether it’s boys or girls across the country, every community we work in, why they play sports, the top reasons are always are to have fun and play with friends. But yet what we’re often delivering to kids — and this often includes boys because it’s just through this competitive culture — is this idea of winning. And you must compete and you must be excellent. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with competing. It’s just putting it in context and balance and recognizing that there are many boys out there who just don’t see themselves necessarily as athletes or feel like they’ve gotten pushed aside at a really young age because of their ability and also because costs as well are a significant issue.

BRODIE: Yeah. Well, I wonder if there’s a factor here also of — you mentioned like the sort of the uber-competitiveness of some of these teams and leagues. Like there are, for example, a lot of people here in Arizona or places like Texas and Florida who just play baseball year round and travel all over the country. Or there are places where you really focus on basketball all year round or hockey or soccer or places like that. And not only does it not really give these kids an opportunity to try other sports, but I would imagine there’s an opportunity there for burnout, a risk for burnout there as well.

SOLOMON: Absolutely. And we encourage sports sampling. That’s really important. And encourage sports sampling until you’re much older. I mean, even into high school you can sample different sports. But at least in elementary school and middle school, we’ve got to let children’s bodies, minds and interests develop. They shouldn’t be picking sports before that happens. There can be late bloomers who develop as better athletes as they get older. Their interests can just change, and just the variety of sports, to your point, reduces the risk of burnout and also reduces the risk of overuse injuries, which we see happen a lot.

BRODIE: What role do you see competition playing in terms of kids choosing not to play sports? I mean, I think back to when I was a kid and obviously there weren’t really many video games. We didn’t have cell phones, and the internet was not really a thing at that point. So II’m curious, kids have so many other things that they can be doing now. Does that play a role in their decision whether or not to play sports and how to play sports?

SOLOMON: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, think about it. You can engage. When we were growing up — I don’t know your age, but I’m 47. When you were growing up in ’80s ’90s, playing sports with friends, that was really how you built a lot of friendships. It was how you saw your friends. It was how you engaged with them. Now, sometimes kids don’t engage with each other face -to-face very much. They’re just texting or playing on video games together. And it’s interesting, we often bemoan technology and video games for making kids more physically inactive. And there’s some truth to that. But the reality is, I think video games have hit the mark in ways that youth sports haven’t, and that is that they are youth-focused. They are centered on what children want out of an experience. So in other words, I think there’s a lot that youth sports can learn from video games and just make it a more engaging, youth-centered experience.

BRODIE: Well, so I’m curious about that because I wonder if there are lessons to be drawn from this report that youth sports and school sports can and should be taking to try to boost participation.

SOLOMON: Yeah, I mean, the number one strategy that we always have at the Aspen Institute’s Project Play is ask kids what they want. And it sounds really simple, but the reality is it’s their experience. It’s not ours. And so if we remember all of that and then create experiences based on that, based on what they want — not necessarily what adults think they want or what adults hope that kids get out of it — we’ll be in a better place, and I think we will see participation increase.

BRODIE: All right. That is Jon Solomon, editorial director for the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program. Jon, thank you for the conversation. I appreciate it.

SOLOMON: Sure. Thanks for having me.

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