Why Youth Sports Need More From Brands, Fans, Leaders

A new report out this month takes an inside look at the current state of young athletes, participation by youngsters in sports and community athletic programs and the impact of these programs on health and fitness.

The study indicates that although sports participation among 6-to-12 year olds rose this past year, "the percentage of youth physically active to a healthy level through sports fell," and that while federal support for recreation infrastructure grew, "gaps in access to sports in low-income areas became more apparent."

Perhaps most alarming was the finding that at the youth level, "most coaches are still not trained in safety and other key areas."

These and other issues were part of "State of Play: 2016," from the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, a Washington, D.C.-based "non-partisan forum for values-based leadership and the exchange of ideas."

Information for the report was gathered during conferences held and a survey conducted at Aspen Institute's Project Play Summit in Washington, D.C., on May 17, 2016.

The Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program created Project Play in 2013 to "find ways to help all children in America become active through sports."

The conference was attended by some “450 leaders who represented all areas of sport and sport development in the United States and Canada."

Participants included First Lady Michelle Obama, sports icon Billie Jean King, veteran sports writer and current ESPN analyst Michael Wilbon, Special Olympics CEO Mary Davis, CEO for the American College of Sports Medicine Jim Whitehead, CEO for the Sports & Fitness Industry Assn. Tom Cove, principal research scientist for the NCAA Tom Paskus, CEO for the American College of Sports Medicine, and Tab Ramos, a former college and pro soccer star who now is youth technical director and U-20 men's head coach for U.S. Soccer.

The new study is a follow-up to "Sport for All, Play for Life: A Playbook to Get Every Kid in the Game," a study from Aspen Institute released in January 2015. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called that report a "powerful roadmap" for innovation and cross-sector collaboration.

The "State of Play: 2016" report highlights more than 40 key developments since then – and offers grades for how well people involved in youth sports and activity decision-making are doing, as viewed by those who participated in the 2016 Project Play Summit in May.

Grades were not high. In fact, they were quite low, when it came to leaders serving children and communities through sports.

When asked, "(Do youth sports leaders) ask kids what they want, understand the needs of kids and (are then) building their voice into the decision-making process around your sports," those surveyed gave a grade of D.

When asked about reintroducing free play and "making room for less-structured activity," the grade was D+.

"Exposing kids to a variety of sports" was graded C-, as was "delivering age-appropriate programs."

Also receiving a C-: "Training (all coaches) in key competencies in working with kids" and "preventing brain and other injuries."

The sport that has made the most progress in growing the number of trained coaches is baseball, but the best-trained coaches in youth team sports are now in lacrosse. Overall, the study found that more organizations are creating coach training programs.

"We're excited to offer this report to the wide variety of constituencies, from parents to policymakers to sport leaders, who have an interest in getting kids off the couch without running them into the ground," Tom Farrey, executive director for the Sports & Society Program, said in a statement. "It's one-stop shopping for understanding the landscape of youth sport today, and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead."

In addition, the study highlights projections from the Global Obesity Prevention Center at Johns Hopkins University, developed for Project Play and introduced at the Summit, on the economic and health benefits of getting more children active through sports.

Among their findings: If 50% of youngsters maintain an active-to-healthy lifestyle, $20 billion in direct medical costs and $32 billion in productivity losses could be saved.

More important: Such activity would add four million total years of life to these kids.

At the Summit, Obama said, "This has to become a priority in our society. …So whatever the dollar figure is, as a society, as taxpayers and as corporate America, we should figure out how much that costs and then pay for it. Period." 

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