Youth sports play a pivotal role in the development of children and adolescents. It lays a foundation for a healthy lifestyle by encouraging physical activity which addresses concerns for childhood obesity and sedentary behavior.
Aside from the obvious physical implications, youth sports are instrumental in fostering life skills, including teamwork, communication, leadership, and resilience. It teaches young people the values of discipline, goal-setting, and sportsmanship. It also serves as a powerful tool for social integration, helping children build friendships, develop a sense of belonging, and learn how to navigate social interactions.
Participation in youth sports has also been linked to numerous mental health benefits, including improved self-esteem, reduced stress and anxiety levels, and enhanced social skills, as it fosters a sense of belonging, teamwork, and resilience among young individuals.
With all of the benefits that come from being involved in youth sports, it leaves us wondering why there seems to be a decline in the number of youth athletes involved in recreational and competitive team sports. Our article will explore the recent decline of participation in youth sports as well as discuss possible 2024 revitalization trends.
Participation rates in 2023
According to the Aspen Institute 2023 State of Play, regular basis participation for youth ages 6-17 declined 6% between 2019 and 2022. That translates to 1.2 million fewer youth regularly playing team sports within this age group, according to data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA).
Jason Clement, CEO of The Sports Facilities Companies, said, “The collision of rec sports and sports tourism has happened, and sports tourism is winning because parents want what’s best for their child’s skills, and the quality of local leagues is really watered down.”
Project Play’s Participation Trend report also concluded that churn rates among youth athletes remain high but, when looked at a granular level, could be solved with free play. The churn rate often exceeds 40% to 50% for sports tracked by SFIA but basketball came out on top.
While total participation in most sports decreased or stayed flat between 2019 and 2022, basketball’s rate for ages 6-17 increased by 15%. Jason Frazier, president of Skyhawks Sports Academy, credits this to rising superstars within the NBA as well as the free play nature of the game - it’s accessible for kids to play basketball individually or at the playground.
There is a positive trend that came from the latest demographic report—the participation rate for girls is at its highest since 2013.
Youth sports participation trends for 2024
Although the last few years have seen a decline in youth sports participation within various cohorts, I’m hopeful that the future of youth sports can be brighter. As we head into 2024, there are a few trends that I believe we will see within the youth sports space.
Trend #1: More communities will adopt the Icelandic approach
In the 1990s, Iceland ranked comparatively high for the number of adolescents who partook in smoking, drinking, and doing recreational drugs, as shown in studies by the European School Project on Alcohol and Drugs (ESPAD).
As a way to reduce these statistics, policy makers and administrative leaders, elected officials, and social scientists came together to explore new ideas for preventing substance abuse that has since become known as the Icelandic Prevention Model. The model is based on the collaboration of parents, teachers, community centers, sports clubs, and other parties in the immediate vicinity of children and young people.
The three pillars of success for this model are 1) Evidence-based practice; 2) Using a community-based programming approach; and 3) Creating a dialogue among research, policy and practice. Other key components include parental involvement, structured leisure activities and early intervention and education. Each family was provided $250/year to spend on healthy activities for their children.
Their approach worked - the percentage of Icelandic children ages 15-16 years old who drank in the past 30 days declined from 42% to 5%; daily cigarette smoking dropped from 23% to 3%; and having used cannabis one or more times, fell from 17% to 5%.
The world of youth sports can help America more readily adopt this approach by providing more opportunities for youth to be involved. The idea of the model is to have more healthy opportunities for teens to say yes to rather than having to say no to bad behavior.
Trend #2: Increase in youth sports management technology
The pre-pandemic landscape for youth sports organizations involved paper registration, social media updates, and cashing checks to deposit registration fees. During the time when in-person contact was at an all-time low, administrators and volunteers needed ways to continue to operate their programs in a more sophisticated way without seeing each other in person.
As a solution, youth and high school sports organizations turned to a more digital approach to manage their teams. These volunteers and admin created websites, registered players online, collected card payments and turned to text messaging and email communication.
While that met the immediate need to move online, it seems that in 2024, these same early adopters of technology will find that they require an ever-evolving platform for their sports organizations. Their needs will outgrow basic management tools and will instead require more sophisticated technology.
It's predicted that all youth sports organizations will need the following:
- The ability to collect online donations from website visitors
- An all-in-one accounting software that tracks deposits, provides refunds, and exports financial activity
- A customized website that can have various modules and designs
Youth sports management platforms such as Jersey Watch have evolved to meet the needs of organized sports by releasing new features that can help volunteers stay organized, efficient, and in control of the many moving parts that make up a youth sports program.
Trend #3: Fewer athletes will specialize
Sports specialization is when an athlete trains intensely for a single sport or athletic activity year-round instead of participating in a wide variety of activities. Many parents who want their children to succeed in high school sports or beyond will have their children follow this type of training regime. But, studies show that this isn't necessarily the answer.
According to a Sports Health study, there is no evidence that sports specialization before puberty is necessary to achieve elite status. Risks of early sports specialization include higher rates of injury, increased psychological stress, and quitting sports at a young age.
Diversified athletic participation promotes the development of a broad spectrum of physical skills, reducing the risk of overuse injuries associated with early specialization. Additionally, participating in a variety of activities helps prevent burnout, a common challenge among young athletes who may experience physical or emotional fatigue when pressured to concentrate on a singular activity.
Beyond the physical benefits, engaging in multiple sports fosters social and emotional growth by exposing children to diverse social environments, cultivating a range of friendships, and building emotional resilience through various team dynamics and challenges.
With almost all research pointing to sports specialization doing more harm than good, I'm optimistic that a greater number of sports parents will push to have a diversified sports background for their athletes before reaching high school.
Trend #4: More flexible formats
The average American household is mainly described as a nuclear family which consists of a set of parents and their biological children who reside in a singular residence. Our society still continues to see this family type but many youth athletes are raised in households that differ from this description.
Sports organizations should consider the different family types that make up their program when creating schedules and designing program activities. For example, a child who comes from a household with divorced parents may not be able to participate in a regular practice schedule if they are with one parent during the week and the other on the weekends.
A way to increase participation in recreational sports is to have more flexibility with the requirements of each individual participant. Ideas to create a more inclusive environment could include:
- Removing attendance requirements
- Creating unstructured activities to encourage free play outside of practice
- Scheduling only local events and games
- Asking more specific questions at registration about the child’s routine
Creating more flexible youth sports programs in 2024 would encourage participation, cater to the well-being of the individual athletes and create a more empathetic environment for parents.
Youth participation fast facts
As mentioned earlier, Aspen Institute's Project Plat released their State of Play 2023 Report. We’ve pulled out fast facts related to youth sports participation for you to review:
- Massachusetts and Minnesota lead the U.S. in sports participation
- 52% of adults say that public funding support for sports would have the most impact at the youth and school sports levels
- ACL tears, a serious knee injury, increased by 12% from 2007/2008 and 2021/2022 in high school sports.
- Men continue to dominate coaching in 2022 with only 26% of youth sport head coaches being female.
Tips to get more youth involved in sports
Encouraging youth participation in sports is essential for their physical, mental, and social well-being. It’s up to us as a society to positively shift the participation trends in youth sports through encouragement, education and action.
Below are tips on how to get more adolescents involved in youth sports:
- Make it fun and inclusive: Design sports programs that prioritize enjoyment and inclusivity. Emphasize the fun aspects of the activities to keep children engaged and motivated.
- Offer a variety of options: Provide a diverse range of sports to cater to different interests and abilities. This allows children to explore and find activities they genuinely enjoy.
- Community involvement: Foster community partnerships with schools, local organizations, and businesses to promote and support sports programs. This collaboration can provide resources, facilities, and financial assistance.
- Utilize technology: Incorporate technology and social media to promote sports programs and engage with youth. Online platforms can be used to share success stories, organize events, and create a sense of community.
By implementing these strategies, communities can create a supportive and engaging environment that fosters a love for sports among youth, promoting lifelong health and well-being.