Sports can be an important part of growing up, and generations of Americans have experienced athletic pursuits as a source of fun, fitness and camaraderie.

But over the past several decades, athletics have increasingly become about profit and professionalism—that is, instead of a focus on enjoyment and exercise, the goal has shifted to becoming the next Steph Curry, Serena Williams or Tom Brady—or at least to landing a spot on a collegiate-level team. Meredith Whitley, PhD, associate professor of health and sport sciences, and fellow members of the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition Science Board are working to change that. The President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition is a federal advisory committee charged with promoting a healthy lifestyle for all Americans, and its Science Board helps to elevate scientific research in the fields of physical activity, physical fitness, sports and nutrition, sharing scientific expertise that supports the council’s activities and initiatives.

The Science Board’s article “Reimagining the Youth Sport System Across the United States: A Commentary From the 2020–2021 President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition Science Board,” which was recently published in the Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, serves as both an analysis of the current youth sports landscape and a road map to get youth sports back on track.

Dr. Whitley explains the important role sports play in young peoples’ lives—and why we should examine ways to improve the experience. “Sports are part of our cultural milieu and highly valued as an achievement arena for young people,” she said. “They can be an incredible space where young people feel safe, connected and valued. And while there might be issues to address with youth sports today, there is also great potential for them to be a meaningful developmental context.”

The article report shines a light on changes in the youth sports model that have created an environment focused more on competition and achievement than access and development. Athletics have become less about child development and inclusiveness, and more about pursuing high levels of competition and cultivating highly talented performers. Unsurprisingly, there is a profit motive in this model, and an increasing number of pay-to-play opportunities have turned youth sports into big business.

To address this, the Science Board’s article has concrete recommendations that refocus the priorities of youth sports and prepare the adults involved—from parents to coaches and mentors—to change their mindset. Dr. Whitley says that to do this, there needs to be a strategic and comprehensive approach across all stakeholders.

“Achieving the goals we envision begins with governmental support promoting positive youth sport outcomes through policies, infrastructure, contracts, guidance, education, funding and supplies,” she says. “We also see opportunities to welcome external support that leverages funding, strategic partnerships and innovation to encourage positive change.”

The Science Board’s recommendations aim to create uniformity of opportunity for all American youth and share an actionable path forward that promotes youth sports from the national to the local level.

Benefits of an Inclusive Youth Sports Model

Still, many who have spent years honing athletic skills might question how the return to a more developmental focus can align with the higher-level goals they’ve set. The current model generally draws distinct lines between youth pursuing sports for development and those seeking top competition.

“We need to stop viewing these two pathways as mutually exclusive; instead, the ‘sport for development’ and ‘sport for competition’ pathways should be mutually reinforcing and integrated,” said Dr. Whitley. She explains how this would enable greater saturation of facility usage, support the training for coaches and other adults involved in youth sports, and broaden community coalitions and partnerships that expand the reach of other deeply needed, but underprovided, services in areas like mental health.

The adverse effects that can result from the diverging focuses of youth sports programs are well documented—the article cites research showing that disparities in sports participation among girls, racial and ethnic minorities, those living in rural areas, those with nonconforming gender identities, and those with disabilities have persisted or widened over the past decade.

Put the Kids in Charge

Another key recommendation of the Science Board’s article is to put youth themselves in leadership roles for their sports experiences, giving them the opportunity to be the central focus, beneficiary and authority within the youth sports system.

“This begins with a simple question: who knows best what kids want? The kids themselves! Instead of holding on to control of the youth sports experience, let’s set up a youth sports system that creates meaningful opportunities for their voices to be heard,” said Dr. Whitley. “Sharing power and control in youth sports settings supports a sense of autonomy and contributes to positive identity development, self-advocacy and agency.”

She proposes a structure where young athletes have leadership roles that not only cultivate the sports experience they want for themselves, but which also prepares them for future leadership roles beyond the sports setting.

COVID-19 and Youth Sports

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an undeniable impact on youth sports, which Dr. Whitley says will likely have long-term effects on young people’s interest and participation in athletics.

The Science Board’s article cited research showing that the pandemic’s lockdowns, social isolation, economic downturn, racial justice unrest and political division further exacerbated a variety of issues that already existed in youth sports, including inequities and suboptimal conditions experienced by some populations.

Dr. Whitley says some of this negative impact is driven by access, citing an increase in the number of “pay-to-play” sport opportunities that impact the viability of more accessible local programming. She also notes that some young people became accustomed to more sedentary behavior during the pandemic, and many turned to e-sports to replace their physical activity.

“We know that changing behaviors is hard, and so it will take tremendous effort to get kids back on the field,” she said.

Priorities for Reimagining Youth Sports

While the Science Board’s article includes some 60 actionable recommendations centering on key areas of improvement for youth sports, Dr. Whitley offers the following 5,000-mile view of its important priorities:

Dr. Whitley shared some final thoughts. “For many young people, the opportunity to take part in an activity where their actions count is quite exciting—it’s the main reason many participate in sports, even when playing at a high level. It is joyful to kick a ball, swing a bat and ride a wave. When done right, sports are fun!”

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