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Back on the Field: The Impact of Youth Sports on Academics, Health, and Relationships

Tracks, fields, and courts are buzzing with activity in towns across Indiana. After a year of distancing and reduced connections, many Hoosier students are back to school and back to playing their favorite sports. Playing sports can be a great way for young people to stay physically fit while also learning valuable lessons that last long after the competition ends.

The Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program studies and reports on the benefits of physical activity for youth. It is not surprising that students that play sports are ten times less likely to be obese, and that they also report lower levels of depression, as well as less smoking, drug use, pregnancy, and risky sex. Regular exercise releases many beneficial chemicals in the brain, and student athletes often report better sleep patterns and reduced levels of stress and anxiety.

There are also academic benefits of participating in school sports. In many cases student athletes have higher grade point averages, higher standardized test scores, better attendance, and lower dropout rates. The Aspen Institute’s Play Project highlights that high school athletes are more likely than non-athletes to attend college and get degrees, with team captains and most valuable players achieving in school at even higher rates. Also, high school athletes are more likely to expect to graduate from a four-year college (73% girls, 59% boys) compared to non-athletes (67% girls, 53% boys).

Post-COVID, the social and emotional benefits of sports may be more important than ever. Being on a sports team can create a sense of belonging and community. Through team interactions students can build relationships with other students that they may not interact with on a day-to-day basis. Frequent practices and games create opportunities for children and youth to learn each other’s strengths and challenges, helping them build understanding and connection over time. And the incremental and compounding achievements of learning new skills and working as a team often translate into increased confidence levels for students.

Over sixty percent (60.9%) of Indiana youth ages 6 to 17 participate in sports, with males (69.3%) more likely than females (52.0%) to be involved. And according to the Data Resource Center for Child and Adolescent Health, Hispanic youth in Indiana are more likely to participate in sports teams or lessons (65.8%) than students that identify as White (61.7%), Other (61.7%) or Black (52.4%). Indiana has the second highest prevalence (60.9%) of youth participating in sports teams or lessons compared to its neighboring states: Illinois (64.7%), Michigan (59.9%), Ohio (56.3%), and Kentucky (51.4%).

Students living in suburban areas are the most likely to be involved in sports, followed by students living in rural areas. Students attending the most underfunded schools, often in urban areas, are the least likely to play school sports. Unfortunately, a growing number of these schools end up cutting funding for sports, leaving their students without access to the many benefits associated with school 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.

And while the Sports and Health in America survey reports a range of ways parents believe their children benefit from participation in sports, it is crucial that family members allow students to relax and enjoy the games. Many times, parents and family members focus on sideline coaching, reliving their own sports experiences, or striving for the extremely rare college scholarships. According to the NCAA, only about two percent of high school athletes are awarded athletic scholarships to compete in college.

Being part of a team, building connections with peers, and gaining the confidence that comes from learning new skills are incredible benefits of playing sports. Above all, sports are intended to be enjoyable — students citing “I wasn’t having fun” is the top reason both males and females quit their teams. Our kids are overdue for some fun. As we watch from the sidelines, let’s stay focused on the benefits of youth sports and cheer on our students, regardless of the score.


About the Indiana Youth Institute For three decades, the Indiana Youth Institute has supported the youth services field through innovative trainings, critical data, and capacity-building resources, aiming every effort at increasing the well-being of all children. To learn more about the Indiana Youth Institute, visit www.iyi.org, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.