LANE ONE: U.S. survey says most kids quit sports by age 11, but is there really a problem?

A breathless story posted last Friday on the Web site of station 41 KSHB in Kansas City announced:

“Study shows more young athletes calling it quits, U.S. Olympic Committee concerned”

The lead paragraphs were dramatic:

“The Olympic games [sic] in Tokyo are less than a year away, and while the focus is on who will compete for Team USA next year, there is a growing concern about having enough athletes for the 2028 Olympics.

“The reason being more and more young athletes are calling it quits.”

And there are specific reasons for this, leading to increased worry:

“A recent study by the Aspen Institute says the average kid today spends less than three years playing a sport and quits by age 11. The study lists costs and overbearing parents as a few factors to the falling participation numbers.

“According to a separate study from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), only 38 percent of kids aged 6 to 12 played team sports on a regular basis in 2018. That’s down from 45 percent in 2008.”

The link was to some research – not a full-blown, published study – by The Aspen Institute, which is promoting its own program, “Don’t Retire, Kid,” with public-service announcements running on ESPN urging children (and parents) to continue to play sports.

The research numbers are interesting. The Aspen Project’s National Youth Sports Survey shows that across 21 specific sports, the average age of youngsters (boys and girls) getting involved in a sport varied widely. A sample:

● 5.75 years old: Gymnastics
● 6.11 years old: Soccer
● 6.35 years old: Flag Football (9.16 for Tackle Football)
● 6.93 years old: Cycling
● 7.12 years old: Baseball (7.59 for Softball)
● 7.78 years old: Skiing & Snowboarding
● 7.99 years old: Basketball
● 8.97 years old: Golf
● 8.98 years old: Tennis
● 11.02 years old: Cross Country (11.05 for Track & Field)

The study also listed the average amount spent by parents to support these endeavors, with the mean ranging from a low of $191.04 for track & field to more than $2,000 a year for Ice Hockey ($2,583), Skiing/Snowboarding ($2,249) and Field Hockey ($2,125). The average was $693 across all sports, with travel often the biggest cost, especially for team sports.

The key finding was that once kids get into sports, they get out after an average of 2.86 years. The “average” entry was at 7.65 years and the “average” exit was at 10.52 years. The sports with the latest age of exits included:

● 13.00 years: Track & Field
● 12.71 years: Cross Country
● 12.30 years: Volleyball
● 12.11 years: Skiing & Snowboarding
● 12.00 years: Skateboarding

The earliest exits were for Gymnastics (8.72), Soccer (9.08) and Martial Arts (9.17).

So there is a new campaign that you will see on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” that features Kobe Bryant as the lead spokesperson, along with six current or former baseball players, three other basketball players or coaches and one ice hockey, soccer and tennis player, all recognizable stars, but most of whom have had little to do with Olympic sports.

Important issue, right? Good for them, right? Critical national issue for our national health, fitness and the future quality of our Olympic teams, right?

Hold on, just a minute.

If The Aspen Institute’s study is on target, then by ages 11-13, kids should be leaving sports and throwing away their bats, balls and gloves and taking up the nearest gaming console, never to return to the field or gym.

So why does the number of participants in high school sports keep going up?

A completely separate survey, done for more than a half-century by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), tracks the number of sports programs offered by high schools in each state as well as the number of actual participants in each sport. And contrary to the crisis portrayed by The Aspen Institute, the numbers keep going up. The 2017-18 survey showed the continuation of consistent growth:

● 2017-18: 7.98 million participants (4.56 million boys + 3.42 million girls)
● 2007-08: 7.43 million participants (4.37 + 3.06)
● 1997-98: 6.33 million participants (3.76 + 2.57)

Instead of going down, as children “quit sports,” the high school numbers are up more than 1.5 million nationally over 20 years and about 550,000 over the last 10 years, even with the crisis in public-school funding across the nation and the cutting of sports teams in many systems. And it is from this continuously-expanding pool of athletes that the American Olympic teams of the future will be stocked.

Obviously, these studies were not coordinated and that’s good, because it raises serious questions about The Aspen Institute’s findings about young people and sports and the apparent “turnaround” in interest in high school years of roughly 14-18. And the numbers shown in the NFHS survey only include participation in interscholastic programs and do not include those involved in club or non-high school activities (track clubs, for example).

The Aspen Institute’s research did not include a key area related to young people at the age which it says that many exit organized sports: the presence – or lack thereof – of physical education in middle schools. Once de rigeur in junior high schools, funding crises in school districts across the United States have curtailed or eliminated these programs, to the lifelong detriment of the fitness of those who do not get such instruction (and daily exercise).

The disconnect of The Aspen Institute work, the role of middle-school curricula, and the continuing rise in high school sports participation create more questions than answers.

Should more kids play sports longer? That a separate question from how children should learn lifetime habits of physical fitness. But lifetime fitness is important.

The Aspen Institute research noted that it’s harder for children growing up in less-well-off families had less access to organized sports programs. No surprise there. And breaking down the need for pay-to-play programs to allow more children of all economic backgrounds to participate is worthwhile.

In fact, it is another reason why Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s hope/idea/suggestion that a $1 billion-plus surplus from the hosting of the 2028 Olympic Games could expand and fund City youth sports programs in perpetuity makes perfect sense.

That’s something the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, not to mention the LA28 organizers, should happily get concerned with.

Rich Perelman