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Integrating Youth Sports into our Community’s Vision for Healthy Youth Development

by Dr. Julie McCleery, Center for Leadership in Athletics

As I have worked to build awareness for State of Play Seattle-King County over the last six months, I’ve had conversations with many people connected to the world of youth sport, activity, and recreation. One of the surprising things I’ve learned in my conversations is the degree to which youth sports and physical activity, in general, is not more integrated into broader efforts for positive youth development.

This is surprising because the ability of youth sports to be a space for positive youth development is well researched. Positive outcomes emanating from physical activity, play, and participation in sport are plentiful and well-founded:  improved memory and executive functioning (Smith, 2013; Stevens 1994); increased capacity to manage emotions and regulate anxiety (Schmidt-Kassow, et al, 2013); an increase in academic achievement and literacy (Haudenhuyse, et. Al, 2014; Dwyer, et al., 2001); and improved skills tied to peer interaction and collaboration (US Play Coalition, 2015; Wright & Cote, 2003) to name just a few. 

Yet, somehow sports and physical activity remain on the periphery of important conversations about how to improve outcomes for youth. Unfortunately, failing to invest in youth sports as a space where youth can a) improve overall and brain health; b) learn and practice social emotional skills; c) make connections with caring adults; d) be in a safe space after school, and e) build positive peer relationships means that we are not doing all we can to support the kids in our community. 

Nationally, approximately 60-75% of kids participate in some form of sports; by neglecting it as a development zone we are missing an opportunity to proactively and effectively engage youth through activities they love. 

We are also missing an opportunity to regain control of the troubling trend of the commodification of youth sports, which is now a $15 billion industry (Time, 2017). This business approach has resulted in the “adultification” of youth sports, which means adults are imposing a sports model based on intense focus on a single sport, with a lot of competitions in which winning is the primary goal. While that is developmentally appropriate for fully-grown professionals, it is certainly not developmentally appropriate for 8-year-olds. This hyper-focus on competition has many side effects, including increased injury, high rates of burn out and attrition, and frankly, kids not enjoying sport.

Unquestionably, youth sports managed in this way does not support positive youth development. This approach also reinforces gaps in equity and access to opportunities for physical activity as not all families have the resources necessary for the fees, equipment, and transportation associated with this high-cost, high-structure approach.  This leave some kids in our community with fewer choices for sport and recreation. That needs to change.

State of Play Seattle-King County offers our region an opportunity to make that change and to make sure that youth sports, play, and physical activity are included in the great work already occurring in the Puget Sound region focused on closing the achievement gap, early education, and community health.

Project Play is an initiative of the Aspen Institute aimed at reimagining youth sports and increasing youth physical activity. The Center for Leadership in Athletics is working with King County Parks to bring Project Play to King County. Implemented here, Project Play will include a landscape analysis of the state of youth sports and activity in the region. A collective action approach will be used to create a common vision and strategic approaches to address the findings of the analysis and bolster youth sports, activity and recreation for all kids in King County. 

 As a collective action project, the State of Play landscape analysis offers an opportunity for educators, coaches, policy makers, youth sports providers, philanthropists, parents, and community members to come together around a common vision for healthy youth–one that includes and embraces their physicality. Instead of leaving sports out of solutions for challenging social issues, we need to recognize sport and play as part of the youth ecosystem and ask questions such as

  • “How can sports help us reach hard to reach kids?”
  • “What do coaches need to know to support struggling kids?”
  • “How can we use the physical activity and play to improve academic performance?”

There are programs and people addressing these issues and they need a seat at the table. It’s time to take back youth sports; our kids and our community will be better for it.