The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Most teens don’t play high school sports. We could change that.

Focusing on expanding opportunities to participate could help more kids turn into active, healthy adults.

Most high school students don't play sports. Not doing so is one reason that many teens become adults who don't get a healthy amount of physical activity. Putting the focus in youth sports on participation instead of competition could help change this. (iStock)
Placeholder while article actions load

I have been thinking about kids and sports because I read a recent report by the Aspen Institute called “Sport for All/Play for Life: A Playbook to Develop Every Student Through Sports.”

The Aspen Institute is a group that studies many important issues, including youth sports.

Sports are important because studies show that kids who are physically active are less likely to be obese (overweight to a degree that puts their health at risk). They are also less likely to smoke or use drugs. In addition, physically active kids do better on academic tests and are more likely to go to college.

The problem is that most kids stop playing sports by the time they get to high school. That means lots of kids don’t get enough exercise.

The Aspen Institute recently surveyed almost 6,000 high school students. The Number 1 reason these teens gave for not playing sports in high school is because they have too much homework.

Maybe schools should give less homework so students would have more time for physical activities. (I think I can hear kids cheering this suggestion!)

Another reason the teens gave for not playing in high school is that their school does not offer sports that interest them.

It makes sense. If kids are interested in sports such as skateboarding and rock climbing, why don’t schools offer those sports in addition to traditional sports such as football, basketball and soccer.

While the Aspen Institute suggests solutions such as community partnerships and better training for coaches, it seems the problem is that youth sports in the United States emphasize finding the “best” athletes rather than encouraging as many kids as possible to play and be physically active.

In a better world, youth sports would emphasize participation in the early ages over all-star and travel teams. That might help more kids stay with their sports instead of quitting at about age 13.

If there were more “sports kids,” this might encourage high schools and middle schools to offer more intramural and club sports rather than just the usual varsity sports that serve only a small group of kids. Or perhaps city and county recreation departments would respond by organizing more recreational leagues and teams for high-school-age kids.

I don’t mind competitive varsity high school sports. My kids played on high school teams and loved it. The best kids should have the opportunity to develop their talents against good competition. Just as the kids with the best voices and acting talent get the leads in school musicals or plays.

The aim of everyone, however, should be to give as many kids as possible a positive sports experience that would lead them to become more active adults.

That may mean changing the way we approach youth sports.

Bowen writes the sports opinion column for KidsPost. He is the author of 27 sports books for kids. His latest book is “Hardcourt: Stories From 75 Years of the National Basketball Association.”