Carolinas HealthCare System
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Why Are Fewer Kids Playing Team Sports?

Participation in youth organized sports is down for a number of reasons, and healthcare experts are concerned about a general exercise deficiency in young people today that could lead to serious health problems in the future.

It’s no wonder childhood and adolescent obesity and prediabetes rates in the United States continue to climb at alarming rates. Young people are faced with a proverbial minefield of health adversaries on a daily basis – heavily processed foods, sugary drinks disguised by marketers as sports drinks, a lagging economy that’s causing parents to cut costs on healthy foods and the emergence of more indoor interests like smartphones, social networking, video games and instant streaming movies.

Considering the circumstances, it comes as no surprise that participation in organized sports among kids aged six to 17 fell markedly from 2008 to 2012. Specifically, the “Big Four” – baseball, basketball, football and soccer – which have long been the primary avenues of regular exercise by American youth, have seen the greatest decline, with more than a 4 percent drop in participation.

Experts point to several potential reasons, but the most likely causes are growing concerns about injuries, mounting costs for parents and schools, and burnout from increased specialization in sports.

The Injury Factor

The easiest participation decline to explain is in youth football, which has seen a precipitous drop off (9.5 percent from 2010 to 2012, according to Pop Warner), spurred largely from parental concerns about concussions. “Long-term brain injury and early-onset dementia are legitimate concerns,” said Grady Hardeman, M.Ed., LAT.ATC, CSSC, with Carolinas HealthCare System. “There are lots of parents right now rethinking the idea of letting their kids play football.” Although not as much of a hot-button topic currently, soccer players also sustain a high rate of concussions, and recent research indicates that the rate of concussions in soccer injuries is comparable to that of football.

And, while no parent can be blamed for steering their child away from potential long-term injury, the issue is that there don’t appear to be new activities to keep kids busy and healthy filling the void left from lower participation in contact sports.

A Question of Cost

School budget cuts continue to hamper student athletics, especially at the middle school level, a crucial time when young athletes are developing their skills and learning the basics of the game. Middle school sports are often the first to go when there are budget cuts. Cuts can also affect athletic trainers, freshman sports teams, and physical education and health curriculum.

Hardeman points to a stagnant economy and more limited discretionary income as another of the reasons he believes has prompted lower participation rates.

Lower levels of discretionary income have far-reaching, often unseen effects, he added, because parents can’t afford registration fees or equipment and are working more hours, which means they may  not have time to drop their kids off at practice.

Education and Exposure

The key, notes Hardeman, is education and exposure. Kids need to be educated early on about the importance of physical activity and parents need to make them aware that, while football, basketball, baseball and soccer are certainly effective routes to good exercise, there are a lot of other alternatives as well.