Youth sports organizations trying to end decline

Justis column: Kids want, and need, to play

Former NFL wide receiver and Cedar Rapids native Dedric Ward explains a drill to kids at the 17th annual Dedric Ward football camp at the Metro Youth Football Fields in Cedar Rapids on Saturday. (The Gazette)
Former NFL wide receiver and Cedar Rapids native Dedric Ward explains a drill to kids at the 17th annual Dedric Ward football camp at the Metro Youth Football Fields in Cedar Rapids on Saturday. (The Gazette)

Editor’s note: Nancy Justis is a former competitive swimmer and college sports information director. She is a partner with Outlier Creative Communications.

By Nancy Justis, correspondent

A new initiative by The Aspen Institute aims to grow national sport participation rates and related metrics among youth.

The institute is collaborating with more than a dozen leading sport, health, media and other organizations, including Nike, NBC Sports Group, Target, the NBA, MLB and American College of Sports Medicine, among others.

According to the institute’s Project Play 2020, the initiative “represents the first time that industry groups and nonprofits have come together to develop shared goals around making sports accessible to all children, regardless of zip code or ability.” The purpose is “to get kids off the couch without running them into the ground.”

Project Play reports the number of kids playing sports keeps decreasing. According to the institute’s Sports & Society Program, “only 36.9 percent of children ages 6-12 played team sports on a regular basis in 2016 — down from 38.6 percent in 2015 and 44.5 in 2008.”

The trends produced annually by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association rarely change. These trends include:

l Children from homes in the lowest income bracket are far more likely to be physically inactive than kids from wealthier households.


l For most sports, participation rates on a regular basis keep declining, with only gymnastics, lacrosse and ice hockey experiencing increases between 2008-16.

l The average child plays fewer than two sports — a statistic now on a regular down cycle due to sport specialization, even though evidence shows playing only one sport can be harmful to the body and stunt athletic development.

l Less than one-third of youth coaches are trained in competencies such as safety and sport instruction.

Project Play also cites that from 2011-15, the percentage of kids 6-12 who were considered active to a healthy level (participating in high-calorie burning sports activities 151-plus times during the year) slowly decreased. However, the decline was much steeper in 2016, dropping by nearly two percentage points.

Money continues to be a major driver of sports participation. In 2016, 29.9 percent of kids from homes in the lowest income bracket ($25,000 or less) were physically inactive. Only 11.5 percent in the wealthiest households ($100,000 or more) were considered inactive.

Not enough coaches are being trained in general safety and injury prevention, sport instruction, concussion management, motivational techniques, CPR/first aid and physical conditioning, according to Project Play. Only 9.7 percent of the coaches come from the under $25,000 household income threshold, while 49.6 percent are from the more than $100,000 category. The gender gap is large, too, with male coaches comprising 72 percent of the field.

Today’s youth sports environment clearly favors the haves rather than the have nots.

I have written numerous times about the pros and cons of travel and elite teams in youth sports and the lack of education for the volunteer youth coaches, who primarily are parents of children playing the sport.

In addition to access to playing sports, the Institute emphasizes “lifting the number of kids who get and stay active will save tens of billions of dollars in direct medical costs and economic productivity losses alone.”


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The Global Obesity Prevention Center at Johns Hopkins University, at the request of the Aspen Institute, simulated the physical activity behavior of youth during the years 2010-2020. The more kids reached the “Active to a Healthy Level,” it was found there were fewer overweight and obese children, direct medical costs were saved, productivity losses were saved and years of life were saved.

Part of the reason I write this column is for all of the above reasons. Kids need to play. All kids need to play. All need to have access. All need to have qualified coaches. And all need safe facilities.

Who wants to see this happen?

l Let us know what you think. Send comments to



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