Reprise: Solve for <X>
Sport participation is down for boys, youngsters are playing sport less regularly, and dropout is still a problem. What would youth sport look like if we could fix these things?
The term “youth sports” conjures different ideas and feelings depending on who is using it. This newsletter, for example, is aimed at those who understand youth sport as an integral part of a national sport effort; physical education teachers might emphasize the movement learning or fitness aspects of it; and sociologists would focus on how youngsters learn to participate more fully in their culture through sport.
Youth sport programs are much more than a ramp to high performance, they’re an institution responsible for the socialization of youngsters into their communities. Loss of opportunities, waning interest, or reduced participation in these programs is alarming and a sign of how fragile institutions can be.
During the pandemic participation in social activities dropped, sport included. It was widely assumed though that things would eventually get back to normal, and many have. But youth sport participation is lagging in ways that should get our attention.
According to State of Play 2023, the Aspen Institute’s annual report from their Project Play, three significant participation trends have been identified:
Children are playing team sports less regularly. Core sport participation declined by 5% for 6- to 12-year-olds since 2019, and 6% for 13- to 17-year-olds over the same period (a core sport is a youngsters primary activity).
Tom Cove, CEO of the Sports & Fitness Industry Association noted that:
“None of us should misunderstand that a lot of kids play sports less because they love a sport and more because they want to be with friends,” Cove said. “When you break up a team, a child gets into other routines and doesn’t get to be with their friends, so they figure out other ways to be with their friends besides sports.”
The pandemic forced families to find other ways to spend their time. Since sport was not an option, youngsters found other activities they and their friends could participate in that take up less time than many of their pre-pandemic sports. Luring these youngsters or, more accurately, their families back into highly structured sport programs will not be easy.
As I have written before, youngsters just starting their sport participation are not interested in high performance, they and their families need time to become invested in a sport before they can begin thinking about progress or goals.
Sports participation is increasing for girls and declining for boys. Boys still participate more than girls (40% to 35%) but the rates are going in the wrong direction for boys.
High attrition rates remain a problem. In terms of dropout, some sports did better than others. The lowest dropout rates between 2019 and 2022 occurred in tackle football (27%), flag football (32%) and basketball (31%). The highest dropout occurred in track and field (56%), swimming (54%) and lacrosse (54%). The report calls these numbers ‘churn rates’, in sport lingo they’re usually referred to as dropout rates.
The article below is a few years old and brings up evergreen issues in youth sport. How can these programs be made better? How can dropout be reduced and retention increased? How can children have sport opportunities regardless of economic status?
Perhaps it time for some real moonshot thinking about these issues and this important social institution.
This article was originally published in August 2016
Solve for <X>
When it comes to creating better sport experiences for youth, reducing childhood obesity, and building a fitter nation, we have to acknowledge that we don't really know how to do this yet. Efforts made by educators, governments, national sport bodies, and a countless number of other individuals are first attempts. Some will succeed, others won't.
The Solve for <X> tagline that Google attaches to some of its more ambitious projects provides a good example of trying to answer the question what if we could do this? and then devising ways to do it. In the video below the Apollo program is used as an example of this kind of thinking. When U.S. President John Kennedy committed to going to the moon in the early 1960s nobody knew how to do it, but over the next several years they devised a plan and the hardware to make such a trip.
You can argue that figuring out how to make youth sport programs better is not in the same class as a moonshot. But if you consider the big picture you might change your mind because of what better youth sport programs would mean to young participants and their opportunities to live long and healthy lives.
Better sport experiences for youngsters don't start when they join youth programs; the process starts much earlier. Each child must first become physically literate and then, if they're interested in sports, they have the foundational movements necessary to participate successfully in training and competitive schemes. If they're not interested in sport then they will at least have the skills they need to lead a healthy life.
What if we could use the knowledge we have about talent creation and apply it to all youth sport programs? What would this look like?
What if we recognized the need for children to be physically literate and then created ways for this to actually happen?
One thing about these questions is that while many may agree on their intent no one, as far as I know, really knows how to make these things happen. Our sport structures are fragmented and there are vying interests that make any kind of sustained, unified action for change unlikely. But this does not mean that there aren't those who are trying to figure it out, being bothered by the challenge, and solving for <X>.