The Aspen Institute released its annual State of Play report this week and found that many sports had bounced back to pre-pandemic numbers. Many kids have joined the pickleball craze and there is an upsurge in bass fishing for some reason, but kids have also returned to the football fields.
“Football, the third most popular team sport for children, rebounded with a 20% increase in 2021 for children aged 6 to 12 and returned to pre-pandemic levels,” the report said. . Great.
The bad news: This is still a steep drop from 2008. The report cites the usual concerns: high costs, sports specialization and a focus on football-intensive travel instead of just getting out and about. to play.
Another reason for the drop is not really a concern for us as concerned parents, teachers and coaches. Birth rates have been falling for more than a decade. This might be bad news for the bottom line of the football industrial complex, but the rest of us are more concerned with making sure there are no barriers to entry preventing children from enjoying our sports. In other words, we are concerned with good experiences for children who are born, not children who do not exist. Also, it’s a bit beyond the scope of a football club to ensure parents procreate.
But the rest of the numbers are healthy. Literally. According to the report’s calculations, the average school-aged person spent 13.6 hours per week playing sports before the pandemic. In 2020, at the height of the first wave of COVID, that figure fell to 7.2. In September 2022, it is until 16.6. (No word on whether this includes the time my local high school football players spent watching a game movie in class while I tried to redirect them to work on essays for their English teachers.)
And one of the focal points of any good sports organization, outreach to low-income families, is paying off: “A good sign is that more children aged 6 to 12 living in households earning less than 25,000 $ regularly played team sports, according to [Sports & Fitness Industry Association] The data. The rate rose to 24% in 2021, marking the third consecutive year that number has improved, even during the pandemic. »
Football has rebounded better than most sports. This is still a far cry from 2008 figures, when 10.4% of children aged 6 to 12 played regularly, but it has risen from 6.2% in 2020 to 7.4% in 2021, an increase of 19 .5%. In contrast, lacrosse (down 23.7%) and football with tackling (down 17.9%) fell.
The big battleground, however, will be on the tennis courts. Tennis added 679,000 players aged 6 to 17 from 2019 to 2021, but they are starting to face competition for court time from the explosive sport of pickleball, which has grown 83% over the same period. Enterprising futsal players have managed to take advantage of vacant tennis courts in recent years, but it might be more difficult today.
Another aspect of the report worth mentioning, and it is thorny: “Coaches are being asked to do more, while many young people are suffering from mental health problems aggravated by the pandemic. But as the coaches told us, they need help to solve these problems with the players. Very few coaches feel comfortable identifying players’ mental health challenges and directing them to the right resources.
It’s worth remembering that the Aspen Institute isn’t tracking these numbers for any sort of economic purpose or to encourage youth sports clubs to build talent pools for professional and college teams. The goal is to identify and then remove barriers to public health and happiness.
Children are already facing the pressure of seeing economic forces cause a lot of uncertainty for Millennials and Gen Z, and they are enrolling in the half-dozen in advanced placement courses to get started in education elite and the new economy. Coaches are dealing with a generation that will forever be marked by a traumatic period of isolation. US Soccer, in addition to its progress in addressing various physical health issues, added in 2021 a Mental Health Awareness section of its Recognize program to recover player health and safety. While no one wants the federation to play doctor, perhaps coaching licensing courses could play on US Soccer’s mental health resource compilation.
Ideally, youth sports would be an escape from all that pressure and a way to build a sense of belonging. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, youth football became one of the ways to get that precious acceptance into a good college. It’s not just a scholarship – parents know more than many people think, and they’ve seen that even “preferred guests” can get into elite schools, pushed to extreme in the Case of Operation Varsity Blues.
Today we also have more youth football at pre-professional level, with teenagers competing for professional contracts and using university as a fallback option. At this level, the federation and elite clubs might need to get more involved in mental health. There’s a reason sports psychology is big business at the highest level of any sport. These resources should be deployed to help children, who are already struggling with the usual aspects of growing up, deal with any additional pressures.
At lower levels, the task should be easier. We need to ensure that sports provide an escape, not an add-on, to the challenges children face in adolescence. Only then can we have healthy sports and healthy children.
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