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Youth sports are a great way to help kids get the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity a day.
But only about half of U.S. kids participate on a youth sports team.
Latinos or other racial/ethnic minorities, girls, rural, low-income, and/or youth with disabilities all have lower rates of both physical activity and youth sports participation, data show. For Latinos, cost and local access to places to play are big barriers to youth sports equity.
Fortunately, the new federal National Youth Sports Strategy outlines opportunities for youth, adults, organizations, communities, and policymakers to improve youth sports equity.
“[The strategy] aims to unify U.S. youth sports culture around a shared vision: that one day all youth will have the opportunity, motivation, and access to play sports — regardless of their race, ethnicity, sex, ability, or ZIP code,” according to the strategy.
Step 1: Getting Kids Involved in Youth Sports
Youth sports can boost kids physical activity, and enhance their academic, economic, and social lives.
To increase participation rates, National Youth Sports Strategy indicates youth need to be aware of available sporting opportunities, know the benefits of participation, and believe that these opportunities and benefits apply to them.
- Learn about the benefits of playing sports, as well as opportunities to play.
- Ask parents or caregivers to sign them up for sports teams or activities.
- Play a variety of sports to build physical literacy and personal growth.
“Participating in youth sports can positively affect feelings of enjoyment; influence perceived competence, confidence, and self-esteem; and provide an avenue for the development of social skills, teamwork, leadership, and life skills,” according to the strategy.
Step 2: How Adults Can Boost Youth Sports Participation
Parents, caregivers, coaches, mentors, athletic trainers, teachers, and health care providers all have roles to play, according to the National Youth Sports Strategy.
- Make having fun a primary focus of sports.
- Set a positive example by being physically active, participating in sports, or playing sports with youth.
- Sign up as a coach, official, or volunteer in a local youth sports program.
For example, Dante Jones of San Antonio invited other neighborhood kids on bikes rides with he and his daughter.
He started to realize they had few positive role models. They had few after-school programs to keep them active and safe. He ended up starting a monthly bike ride and the “Roll Models” to incorporate the physical activity of skating and biking with lessons on overcoming life’s challenges.
“We would like to train teenagers to become Roll Models in their own neighborhood,” Jones said. “Because there’s nothing like having a physical role model who grew up and came out of what you came out of, to be able to set the example for you.”
Step 3: How Schools Can Improve Youth Sports Participation
Schools and organizations can:
- Promote the benefits of and access to sports opportunities to youth and their families.
- Recruit coaches who reflect the demographics of the community.
- Require and provide access to training or certification programs for coaches, officials, and volunteers.
For example, Douglas Johnson, the new principal at Mountlake Terrace Elementary School in Mountlake Terrace, Wash. (10.5% Latino), realized the enormity of physical inactivity and obesity in his community.
Safe biking opportunities provide an avenue to improve the situation. Johnson and other leaders at Mountlake Terrace started by partnering with local cycling clubs.
Soon, they began creating opportunities. They helped bring new bikes, helmets, and a brand-new bike trail to the school. Kids can check out bikes at recess and get the physical activity they need to stay healthy.
“It’s about hearing great ideas and running with them,” Johnson said. “Being open to an idea and trying it and then asking, what’s next?”
Step 4: How Communities Can Shape Youth Sports
Communities can positively shape youth sports by providing access to safe spaces to play— courts, fields, pools, tracks, etc. These need to be accessible and physically located in the communities where youth live, learn, and play, according to the National Youth Sports Strategy.
- Ensure that safe play spaces are easily accessible for all youth.
- Collaborate with academic institutions or public health organizations to evaluate programs.
- Locate sports facilities in areas that are safe and accessible via multiple transportation options, including walking, biking, and public transportation.
For example, Benjamin Alexander was already an avid bicyclist when he started working at a local community center, where he mentored kids in Kansas City, Kan., which is 28% Latino.
Alexander rode his bike to work every day.
He eventually started FreeWheels for Kids, a program that teaches middle-schoolers to have fun and stay active and how to fix bikes. They also build nature trails, and voice their desire for a bike friendly community with bike-friendly streets.
“The purpose of a bike club is to give youth ages 12-18 the chance to learn about what assets the community has, as well as identify some things that might need improvement,” Alexander said.
Step 5: How Policy Leaders Can Pave Way for Youth Sports Equity
At the local level, policies implemented in schools can impact sports opportunities.
Also, over one-third of states have legislation governing participation fees for school sports. These laws can dictate whether or not schools can implement participation fees for school sports, according to the National Youth Sports Strategy.
Public agencies can:
- Seek out and support public- and private-sector partnerships.
- Identify and provide grants, funding opportunities, and other resources to support youth sports programs.
- Support policies that facilitate access to youth sports and facilities.
For example, George Block and other advocates in San Antonio pushed for more school districts to enter shared use agreements to allow public use of school yards and playgrounds.
Yet, as some of these agreements opened school yards, they still sat empty after school.
To drive the idea that these school yards are open to the public, Block led an efforts to install literal “open gates” to signify the openness of these recreational facilities.
“Access to safe places to play is a huge problem and it’s too big for any one group or government department to solve by themselves,” Block said.