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Putting the “Play” Back in Playing Sports

In the last decade, the number of children from age 6 to 12 who regularly participated in organized sports in the United States declined from 45 percent in 2008 to 37 percent in 2019. In addition, 80 percent of youth athletes quit sports by age 15. Is this because youth sports in the United States are not accessible to children due to high costs associated with playing competitive sports? Or is it because youth sports are only available to "talented" athletes?

There is no question that all young people would benefit from participating in a sport. Besides the obvious physical benefits of playing sports, there are social, academic and psychological benefits that play an important role in a young person’s life. For example, the determination and goal setting skills a sport requires can be transferred to the classroom. Further, watching your hard work pay off and achieving your goals develop self-confidence. Team sports also teach accountability, dedication, leadership and other skills. However, are youth sports in the United States too focused on competition rather than promoting the well-being for all?

Let’s compare the landscape of youth sports in the United States and Norway. In Norway, 93 percent of the children grow up playing organized sports. Why is there such a difference in the number of youth participation in sports between the two countries? In Norway, the costs of engaging in active sports are low, there are few economic barriers to entry, and perhaps most importantly, competitive travel teams are not formed until the teenage years – meaning adults don’t start sorting the weak from the strong until children have grown into their bodies and interests. And the results show. In the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, Norway, a nation of just 5.3 million, won more medals (39) than any other country in the history of the Winter Games.

In Norway, youth participation in athletics is regulated by Children’s Rights in Sports, which states that there should be no national championships before age 13, no regional championships before age 11, and there shouldn’t be publication of game scores or rankings before age 11. The purpose of enacting the Children’s Rights in Sports is to promote competition, but not at the expense of development and diminishing motivation. By placing a high value on the voices of children and lessen the pressure of competition, children foster innate passion for their sport which motivates them to excel.

The Norwegian Children’s Rights in Sports is a declaration that underpins their sports ecosystem and binds all coaches when working with young athletes. This system focuses on the athlete’s development of talent rather than the coaches’/parents’ perspective of sports talents. In the United States, are youth athletics becoming too competitive? Are children being pushed by their coaches or parents to compete in the next level too young? Most importantly, are Americans taking the “play” out of playing sports?

Hoop Hero invites you to comment on this debate.

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