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A closer look at some trends in youth sport participation

This is an excerpt from Social Issues in Sport, Second Edition, by Ronald B. Woods, PhD.

With participation in youth sport at an all-time high, it would appear that things are rosy in the sporting world of kids. In 2000, the number of American youth who played on at least one organized sport team was found to be 54% of kids between ages 6 and 17 (American Sports Data, Inc. 2005). A similar study five years later showed that among a slightly older age group of 10- to 17-year-olds, sport participation had jumped to 59% (National Survey of Children’s Health 2005).

A related study produced a mixture of good and bad news. It revealed that team sport participation peaks at age 11, basketball remains the most popular team sport, and participation in sport by girls has never been better—but frequent participation by both boys and girls in team sports is declining. A closer look, however, reveals a host of problems. Perhaps the most alarming statistic is that by some estimates, over 70% of participants drop out of youth sport programs along the way to high school. Speculation is rampant as to the cause, but no clear pattern has yet emerged. Possible causes of youth dropouts in sport include the following (Cary 2004):

  • Overemphasis on winning as the objective with resulting increases in pressure to win and achieve
  • Stress on high performance that translates into longer hours of practice, longer seasons, and specialization in one sport at an early age
  • Expenses of participation, traveling teams, sport camps, sport academies, coaching, and equipment that are out of reach of middle-class families
  • Increased injury incidence due to inordinate demands on young bodies
  • Increased participation in alternative sports by young people who are turned off by traditional adult-organized programs
  • Lack of training for youth coaches and the resulting frustration of kids who take orders from well-intentioned but misguided coaches
  • Earlier starts in youth sport (sometimes as young as 3 or 4 years of age); children simply grow bored with a sport after a number of years

A more recent study sponsored by the Women’s Sports Foundation (2008) investigated the participation of American youth in exercise and organized team sports. The findings were that 72% were participating or had participated in a sport during the past 12 months, while 12% had dropped out of sport and 15% had never played sports. Perhaps more revealing were the statistics showing that gender, race, and location of kids significantly affected their likely sport participation.

Comparing gender, boys were more likely to be involved in sport at every age and more likely to play multiple sports, and a higher percentage of boys tended to be avid sport participants. Girls tended to enter sport later than boys (7.4 years compared to 6.8 years for boys), and girls also dropped out sooner and in greater numbers. Interestingly, girls were more likely than boys to take part in a wide array of sports including cheerleading, dance, competitive rope jumping, and volleyball while boys tended to stick with more traditional sports.

In suburban communities, participation rates between boys and girls are comparable, but in rural and urban communities, girls fall far behind boys. One telling statistic is that 84% of urban and 68% of rural girls have no physical education classes at all in 11th and 12th grade, compared with only 48% of girls in suburban schools who do not participate in physical education.

Youth sports are racially and ethnically diverse and in fact at many ages, boys of color tend to have higher participation rates in sport than Caucasians. However, the picture for girls of color is not encouraging. They seem to be hit by both gender and skin color discrimination, and their participation levels fall significantly below those of Caucasian girls. The reasons for this are a combination of culture, family responsibilities, income level, and living locations (Women’s Sports Foundation 2008).

Let’s take a closer look at some trends in youth sport.

If you had asked someone in 1975 which sports were most popular with youth, it is likely that the answer would have included traditional boys’ sports like basketball, football, baseball, track, swimming, and perhaps skiing, wrestling, bowling, and gymnastics. Now that girls are much more involved in sport, the types of sport activities have broadened to include sports such as volleyball, soccer, cycling, lacrosse, field hockey, ultimate Frisbee, cheerleading, double Dutch, and stepping. Table 6.2 shows the most frequent physical activities by gender (Women’s Sports Foundation 2008).

Dropping out of youth sport and physical activity continues to be a concern, especially since a majority of youths seem to withdraw during the middle school years. The structure, emphasis on competitive results, length of season, and commitment, along with boredom, are typically cited as primary reasons. A section later in this chapter, Why Kids Play—and Stop Playing—Sports, looks at specific reasons kids give for dropping out of organized sports (see page 110).

Learn more about Social Issues in Sport, Second Edition.

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