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Youth sports still struggling with dropping participation, high costs and bad coaches, study finds

Kids play soccer as they wait for President Donald Trump to speak at the White House Sports and Fitness Day event in May. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

More American children ages 6 to 12 were physically active in 2017, but not to a healthy level, according to data published Tuesday by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association and the Aspen Institute.

Youth sports advocates have for years pushed kids to play more team sports, and those efforts showed some success over the past four years. Physical inactivity dropped slightly over that span, but kids still generally are not getting enough exercise, based on data published in Aspen’s annual “State of Play” youth sports report.

Not even a quarter of children regularly participate in high-calorie-burning sports, according to the report, and the percentage continues to fall. In 2011, 28.7 percent of kids were active at a healthy level; last year, it was 23.9 percent.

The crisis facing American youth sports deepened in 2017 amid that inactivity and a slew of other entrenched issues; volunteer coaches are generally unqualified and the cost of organized sports for kids is prohibitively high, according to the report.

Only 35 percent of coaches are trained in core competencies such as basic skills, and 36 percent are trained in strategy and safety and injury prevention. For the third consecutive year, children from low-income households were half as likely to play a significant amount of team sports as children from households earning at least $100,000, the report shows. They were also three times as likely to be physically inactive.

The troubling data is part of youth sports and public health advocates' generational crusade against childhood obesity and inactivity, trends experts say are linked to resource distribution and the soaring business interests tied to childhood athletics, a market valued at $17 billion, according to WinterGreen Research.

“Everyone thinks from the Olympic medal count, we have the best youth sports system in the world. But when you look at some of the sports, these are things parents pay for,” said Lisa Delpy Neirotti, an associate professor at George Washington University who studies youth sports. “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.”

Experts blame the steep costs and dropping participation on what they call an “up or out” mentality. Competitive travel teams, which can sometimes cost thousands of dollars to join, have crept into increasingly younger age groups, and they take the most talented young athletes for their teams.

The children left behind either grow unsatisfied on regular recreational teams or get the message that a sport isn’t for them.

As winning becomes a priority at earlier ages, coaches and parents are forced to spend more money to keep up. Those funds commonly outpace what recreational leagues and local parks departments are able to spend per child, said Jon Solomon of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program.

The organization convened its annual conference on youth sports' issues Tuesday at the Newseum.

“There’s nothing wrong with being competitive and playing higher competition,” Solomon said, “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.”

Almost 45 percent of children ages 6 to 12 played a team sport regularly in 2008, according to Aspen’s data. Now only 37 percent do.

“It’s really a story of the haves and have-nots in youth sports in America,” said Bob Bigelow, a former NBA player and author of three books on youth sports.

The hypercompetitive and at times expensive atmosphere results from an earlier push for college athletic scholarships, which Aspen experts said have “reshaped” kids playing sports and caused parents and coaches to emphasize winning and elite skill development before children are ready for it.

The top reason kids want to play sports, the report indicates, is a desire to be with friends, not winning. That may have hurt soccer participation, which dropped 9.5 percent year over year due to a U.S. Soccer Federation age group rule change that broke up existing teams, according to the report. (Players are now grouped by birth year, rather than school grade.)

Solomon, who coaches one of his sons' recreational soccer teams, said he saw a noticeable drop in participation in his local league when kids who had played together for years could no longer be on the same teams.

“Kids want to play with friends. It’s a lot simpler than we as adults make it out to be,” he said.

“When you let the adults hijack youth sports, their priorities are going to take the place of what the kids want,” added Bigelow.

The report did include some good news.

Sport sampling, or kids playing more than one sport, saw a slight improvement for first time since 2011.

And flag football participation for children ages 6 to 12 outpaced tackle football for the first time, by more than 100,000 kids. That, Solomon said, shows that the sport’s leaders are taking player safety seriously at younger ages, and that parents have more access to flag football leagues.

“That’s a step in the right direction,” he said, “but you have to look at the kids who are being left behind.”

Most of the participation gains, the data shows, come from households with higher incomes.

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