Youth Sports at a Crossroads (and Project Play Summit streaming today 2/25)

By: Christine Baugh

Youth sports participation comes with a variety of health and social benefits. The position statement put out by the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM) indicates that over 27 million individuals age 8-17 participate in team sports in the United States, and over 60 million participate in some form of organized athletic activity. These youth and adolescent athletes benefit from  better overall health as well as increased socialization and self-esteem. However, a recent report by the Aspen Institute’s Project Play Initiative indicates that there has been a significant decline in sports participation in recent years.

One factor influencing the decrease in participation may be parental concerns. A recent survey of parents conducted jointly by ESPNw and the Aspen Institute characterized these concerns finding a large percentage of parents were worried about the risk of injury, behavior of coaches, cost, time commitment, and the emphasis on winning over having fun. Concussions and head injuries were the most worrisome injury for parents in this study. Despite this concern, very few parents reported keeping their child from participating in sports due to this risk. The AMSSM position statement characterizes the preoccupation with specialization and competition within sports at such a young age as a risk factor for injury and burnout.

A January New York Times article, “The Rising Cost of Youth Sports, in Money and Emotion,” characterized current practices of youth sports in the United States. According to the article, previous generations benefited from participation in a variety of sporting activities throughout youth and adolescence. In contrast, today’s youth more frequently begin specializing in one sport at an early age and are faced with sometimes unrealistic competitive expectations. Furthermore, these competitive pressures lead to increased participation in high-cost camps, leagues, and clinics. This not only puts additional pressure on those children participating, but also excludes a large number of children whose families do not have the means to support the “up or out” competitive nature of youth sports today.

The Aspen Institute Project Play report provides important suggestions for improving the physical literacy of youth and adolescents in the United States. Through their 8-Plays framework they propose methods for re-imagining youth sports in the United States. Many of the suggested changes bring us back to a time when sports were available to more individuals through town recreational leagues that were free or inexpensive, included a variety of levels of competition (or non-competition), and promoted all of the values of physical literacy and teamwork that we value in athletics. The Project Play Summit, hosted today (Feb 25) is bringing together some of the greatest minds in medicine, policy, and sport to contemplate this important societal issue. For those of you interested in tuning in (I know I will be) many of the sessions will be streaming live: here.


At the end of her fellowship year, Christine Baugh was a PhD student in Health Policy at Harvard University. She received her BA in History and Science from Harvard College in 2010 and her MPH from Boston University School of Public Health in 2012, concentrating in Health Law, Bioethics, and Human Rights. At the time, Christine's primary research area was brain trauma sustained through sport, and she has written about the epidemiology, risk factors, policy approaches and implications, as well as the possible long-term effects of repeated brain injury. Broadly, Christine’s research interests involve the interaction between evolving science, policy, and society. While a student fellow at the Petrie Flom Center, Christine explored conflicts of interest in the collegiate sports medicine setting in a manuscript titled "Trust, Conflicts of Interest, and Concussion Reporting in College Football Players."

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