Youth Sports: The Simple Solution – Time to Lower the Barriers

By Bill Sells

SVP, Government Relations & Public Affairs, Sports & Fitness Industry Association

May is National Physical Fitness & Sports Month. It is also National Mental Health Awareness Month. The two go together like peas and carrots, and the teamwork between physical fitness and mental health starts at a young age. Studies consistently show that higher self-esteem and self-confidence are just two of the many benefits associated with youth sports participation.

What happens when you interrupt a healthy childhood routine of sleep, school, friends and sports or prevent those healthy habits from taking hold in the first place? We knew the answer before March of 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic made it clear in an alarming and heartbreaking way, and as a nation, we are still coping with the fallout.

As schools closed, youth sports shut down as well. Separation and isolation filled the void, upsetting the only routines many children had ever known, leading to a youth mental health crisis that can only be described as tragic.

The American Academy of Pediatrics said there has been an increase in suspected all-drug overdoses in children ages 14 and below. In a Global Sport Institute poll, 72 percent of parents said children’s inability to play sports has caused them stress and anxiety. The U.S. Surgeon General emphasized the importance of youth sports participation in his 2021 Advisory, “Protecting Youth Mental Health.”

“The best treatment is prevention of mental health challenges,” Dr. Vivek Murthy wrote. “Encourage children to build healthy social relationships with peers through sports.” Dr. Paul Reed, director of the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, noted, “Mental health and physical health are closely connected.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that physically active high school students are less likely to consider suicide and that student-athletes are less likely to abuse prescription drugs. 

Our challenge is to make it easier for youth to play sports by reducing such barriers as cost of participation, accessible spaces and the availability of programs. Urban areas too often lack recreation spaces, it costs an average of $408 per year for a child to play high school sports (according to a survey by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan) and programs can be scarce in underserved areas. It’s time for America to develop new recreation spaces, help families with youth activity costs and create low-cost sports programming to get kids back on the field, court and rink.   

The effort has begun. The Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership program annually provides millions in grants for development of badly needed urban recreation spaces. The U.S. Conference of Mayors asked Congress to pass the PHIT Act to help families with activity costs. New York State is using sports gaming revenues to fund youth sports programming.

Youth Sports are key to better youth mental health. Medical and health experts get it! Congress should be commended for working to pass bipartisan mental health bills before Election Day to address America’s mental health, substance abuse and suicide problems. Additional diagnosis, treatment and counseling resources are needed for those suffering, but Congress must do more to help lower the barriers to youth sports now to reverse the growing youth mental health problem.

We as a nation have a choice. Let’s get our children active and set them on a path to a better future or today’s youth will be tomorrow’s adult mental health crisis and Americans will be paying a much bigger health bill going forward.

About the Author

Bill Sells is Senior Vice President for Government Relations & Public Affairs for the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. You can reach him at