Doctor’s Note: Be a Good Sport — The Problem with Youth Sports in America

Spending more money on youth sports has failed to make average U.S. children any healthier. Is there a better way?


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Childhood obesity has more than tripled between the 1970s and today. U.S. teenagers have much lower levels of physical fitness than they did in the 1990s. Only 40 percent of Americans age 17-24 are physically fit enough to serve in the military, a fact that could severely threaten our national security.

So, let’s talk about youth sports.

Sports participation, both in free play and in organized leagues, is an obvious way to stay fit and lose weight. In this era of cellphones and videogames, adults and children can both benefit from seeing the sun and touching grass. We know that kids who participate in youth sports are more likely to stay physically active, be less anxious and depressed, and learn valuable life skills like grit, teamwork, and sportsmanship.

The youth sports industry has enjoyed an unprecedented economic boom in the past few decades. Industry revenues totaled $19 billion in 2017, a number that is likely even higher today. And the total spending by parents increased to $30+ billion in 2022, far exceeding the revenue of the NBA, NFL, MLB, or FIFA.

That’s great, right? If kids are out of shape, and youth sports are profitable, isn’t this a self-solving problem? We can enroll all our kids in baseball and soccer and wrestling leagues and watch as the youth fitness problem solves itself.

Unfortunately, spending more money on youth sports has failed to make average U.S. children any healthier. At the same time that youth sports has become a big-money industry, the number of youths participating in sports has declined. Travel leagues are burdensome to parents and children alike, shutting out less-affluent families while sucking up funding and attention from local recreational leagues. While an elite minority of unusually affluent or unusually talented children compete at increasingly expensive events, the vast majority of American kids have fewer options for rec leagues or even casual play.

The escalating money and time requirement for youth sports has created a pressure-cooker atmosphere both for the children and their parents. An increasing number of child athletes suffer from burnout, causing nearly 70 percent of kids to stop playing their favorite sport by age 13. Columnist Rich Cohen wrote of his son, “His love for the game had carried him to a level where no love is possible. ” Children who continue playing despite feeling burned out appear to suffer higher rates of anxiety, depression, and eating disorders — ironically similar to children who lack access to youth sports!

The rate of childhood sports injuries, ER visits, and surgeries has increased significantly over time, and there is a strong correlation between the injury rate and “early sports specialization”. Children who over-train in a single sport at the expense of other sports and physical skills are more likely to be injured compared to those who do not.

Even more frightening is the sharp increase seen in unsportsmanlike behavior from adults at youth games. Adults have screamed at coaches, assaulted referees, started bleacher-clearing brawls, and even attacked children. Youth coaches have been quitting en masse since the mid-2010s largely due to harassment and abuse from sports parents.

Part of the reason some parents get so emotionally charged at youth sports games is that they see athletics as a golden ticket to a university education. The price of a college diploma has increased by 65 percent over the past two decades. With that in mind, one might think it’s rational to push your kids as hard as possible on the field in pursuit of a debt-free education.

A simple look at the numbers shows this to be a sucker’s game. With parents spending $30 billion on sports annually, and the NCAA handing out $3.6 billion in scholarships, it’s impossible for more than a tiny fraction of parents to “get their money back” on youth sports.

When you step back and look at the big picture, it seems that nearly all of the benefits of youth sports come from less competitive play with no money at stake. Nearly all of its harms come from vicious competition driven by the pursuit of trophies, broadcast rights, and scholarships. Some youth sports proponents have recognized this problem and are trying to bring the fun back into play.

The Aspen Institute’s Project Play Initiative has an eight-part playbook that emphasizes school-based physical education, local sports leagues, multisport play, unorganized free play, and funding for sports equipment and coach training, especially in less-affluent communities.

Making youth sports less competitive could improve overall sports participation, decrease burnout and injuries, and maybe even cut down on unsportsmanlike conduct. But one might wonder, doesn’t this come at a cost? If we make youth sports less competitive, won’t our kids be less able to compete at the highest level?

Norway has already run that experiment for us. The results are shockingly good. The Norwegian sports development model is based entirely on “fun.” Youth leagues age 6-11 don’t keep scores or standings or travel to competitions. Even the least skilled kids are allowed to join the team, and parents have little to no out-of-pocket costs. The non-competitive nature of Norwegian youth sports has improved participation, reduced injuries, and prevented burnout. And rather than decrease their athletes’ drive to excellence, it’s greatly boosted their standing on the international stage. With a population of 5.5 million, Norway consistently beats far larger nations in the Olympic medal standings.

It may be true that you can’t have your cake and eat it too, but when you’re a kid playing for fun, you can totally throw a ball and catch it too. Kids should play sports because they’re fun, not because they’re a pathway to scholarships or stardom. Those who have the natural gifts to become a superstar will get there eventually.

So, play ball. Have fun. Make friends. Get in shape.

Be a good sport.

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  1. If transgendered people want to participate in athletic games, rather than competing with male teams or female teams, they are perfectly free to form their own separate transgendered sports leagues where they can play against other transgendered athletes. Then it’s fair for all genders as no one will have an unfair advantage.


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