What also startled the study’s authors was the way small public and private schools often provide students no sports at all.
“The charter school movement has the lowest sports participation rate,” Farrey said. Some lack the resources to hire P.E. instructors or are short on infrastructure and space. Others define themselves strictly based on their academic purpose, making clear to families that sports are an outside-of-school endeavor.
Three broad reasons account for these trends: insufficient funding to cover the costs of athletic programs; national policy initiatives that shrunk physical education; and a dearth of insight on the part of schools on fresh ways to keep kids moving. What struck Farrey most was the disconnect between what kids say they want most from their sports—fun, exercise, learning and social opportunities—and what high school programs tend to fixate on, which is winning championships. High schools, Farrey said, “are using the wrong scoreboard.” A successful sports program should be defined not by titles and wins but by the number of students who are active at school.
The Aspen study identified eight overarching strategies that high school leaders can take to escape the 70’s model and invigorate their sports programs.
- Coordinate the school’s sports program with its overall mission, so that the default goal for most school teams—winning championships—doesn’t crowd out larger educational purposes.
- Keep on top of students’ athletic interests with regular surveys, then adjust sports options accordingly.
- Work with every student to create a tailored activity plan that includes their interests, athletic experience, history of injuries and outside sports commitments as a way to formalize and elevate the role of physical activity in school.
- Think beyond traditional team sports and offer kids intramurals and club teams, which are less expensive and more inclusive.
- Ally with community groups like YMCAs and Boys & Girls Clubs to make up for limited space at school.
- Expand the education requirements for coaches beyond the basic certification. Train them regularly in how to run healthy and positive sports programs.
- To ensure student safety, have a qualified athletic trainer on staff or available when needed.
- Evaluate teams using tangible metrics beyond wins and losses to determine their effectiveness.
What does Farrey, who has examined youth sports from all angles for more than a decade, think educators need to take away from this report? “They have a responsibility to give all students in the school, not just varsity athletes, the opportunity to play on teams,” he said. Sports shouldn’t be considered an add-on, or a “nice-to-have” option. Rather, they need to be regarded as an indispensable piece of a sound high school education.
Linda Flanagan is the author of the forthcoming book, “Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania Are Ruining Kids’ Sports—and Why It Matters,” published by Penguin Random House.