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By Tami Silverman, President & CEO, Indiana Youth Institute

Back to school means back to sports for many Hoosier students. Playing sports is one of the best ways for students to stay active and help them maintain a healthier weight. Organized youth sports provide a wide range of benefits, many beyond physical fitness, and yet it is important to understand the pros, cons and realities of youth sports.

An ESPN study reports that 30% of girls and 37% of boys play on high school teams. While overall levels of school sports participation have remained fairly constant, more girls have been playing sports in recent years, according to Child Trends.

Students living in suburban areas are the most likely to be involved in sports followed by students living in rural areas. Hispanic students are less likely than black or non-Hispanic white students to participate in school athletics. Students attending the poorest schools, often in urban areas, are the least likely to play school sports. A growing number of these schools are cutting funding for sports, leaving their students without access to the many benefits associated with school sports.

In addition to the health benefits of participating in school sports, there are also clear academic benefits. In most cases, student athletes have higher grade point averages, higher standardized test scores, better attendance, lower dropout rates, and a better chance of going to college than students who do not participate. The skills learned through many sports, such as memorization, repetition, and group-learning, are also helpful in classroom learning. And skills such as leadership, teamwork and effective communication are valuable not only on the field and in the classroom, they are also highly attractive to future employers.

Playing sports can also generate social and emotional benefits for our kids. Sports participation can increase self-esteem and self-confidence. Regular exercise releases many beneficial chemicals in the brain, and student athletes often report reduced levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. The sense of belonging and community associated with being part of a team is also a plus. Sportsmanship, often thought of as the ability to cheer on others and acknowledge the accomplishments of your teammates and opponents, is an invaluable life skill. Student athletes are challenged to learn self-discipline and how to control emotions associated with big wins and losses. And simply having fun is a great reason to play sports.

At the same time, playing school sports is not right for every student. Family members need to understand the potential risks associated with sports participation. Too often parents, coaches, teams, and the students themselves, push too hard for wins, creating unhealthy performance pressure. If a student already has a packed schedule, perhaps with tough classes and part-time work, adding sports can increase rather than alleviate the child’s stress.

A good number of the cons associated with youth sports are related to the behaviors of the parents and family members. Experts suggest avoiding these three big pitfalls. Stop connecting your child’s performance with your ability to coach or parent them. Stop using the sports sidelines as your social circle or a place to recapture your glory days. And stop thinking that the goal of playing school sports is to get a college athletic scholarship. According to the NCAA, only about two-percent of high school athletes are awarded athletic scholarships to compete in college. Sports are intended to be enjoyable, with students citing “I wasn’t having fun” as the top reason both males and females quit playing sports. If it stops being fun, or if the cons begin to outweigh the pros for your child, it is time to reevaluate.

Sports can be an outstanding way for students to remain active, build self-esteem, and have a great time. The attitudes, mindsets, and skills taught through sports translate into positive adult behaviors. Yet far too many well-intentioned adults fail to support their child’s decisions when it comes to sports. It is up to us, as caring adults, to ensure we distinguish between the goals of playing sports and score of the game.