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New WSF Research Solidifies the Need for High School Sports

Does playing sports in high school help teenagers positively develop compared to other extracurricular activities? And are U.S. public high schools offering enough opportunities for their students to get in the game?

New research published by the Women’s Sports Foundation in partnership with the DICK’s Sporting Goods Foundation seeks to answer these questions. The report, titled The State of High School Sports in America: An Evaluation of the Nation’s Most Popular Extracurricular Activity, analyzed two of the largest nationally representative samples of high school students surveyed between 2000-2016 to determine the number of sports, number of sports teams and participation rates among the schools. This study builds on previous research that views teen sports as an educational tool and, more importantly, a public health asset.

The participation results were mixed. Findings indicate that sports are more popular than ever, topping the list of extracurricular activities among U.S. high school seniors. However, public schools with high levels of poverty continue to struggle with offering any sports to students, and girls’ participation rates still lag behind their male counterparts’.

Per the research, kids enjoy being involved in high school sports. Sports give them a feeling of connectivity and purpose. High levels of involvement in school-based athletics correlate to significant number of benefits: lower levels of depression, higher levels of self-esteem, and lower levels of self-derogation, higher grades, greater aspirations to attend college or graduate high school, as well as lower risks of cutting class and school misbehavior.

On the other hand, one in five high schools do not offer interscholastic sports. In most cases, those same schools are the ones who cater to vulnerable populations. The WSF research expands on previous knowledge that shows schools with high levels of poverty tend to be the schools that offer the fewest opportunities to participate in interscholastic sports. Though research in the past has shown an upward trend in interscholastic sports in high schools, more recently that trend has not continued. The average number of sports offered at high schools dropped by four (from 19 sports, to 15) in five years (2009-2016). More than twice as many high poverty schools (33%) than low poverty schools (15%) indicated they had no sports teams.

Per the report, interscholastic sports could be students’ only outlet. It is problematic that these urban areas and schools with fewer resources cannot afford or take time to implement sports programming. For many of these kids, interscholastic sports are the only way that they would be able to play sports in their lives and reap the powerful benefits of being on a team.

To conclude, the research shows that kids want to be involved in interscholastic sports and that their involvement can be life-changing, but also shows that many schools lack the ability or don’t see the importance of offering interscholastic sports. The goal now is for more high schools to be able to offer interscholastic sports so that more students can reap the benefits.

The State of High School Sports research was made possible through our partnership with the DICK’S Sporting Goods Foundation. On July 18, DICK’S Sporting Goods and the DICK’S Sporting Goods Foundation hosted a Sports Matter panel. Speaking on the panel, Dr. Marjorie Snyder, the Women’s Sports Foundation Senior Director of Research and Programs, highlighted key findings from the research alongside fellow panelists that included Alex Morgan and Larry Fitzgerald.

To read the full State of High School Sports research report, please click here.

Abby Jonathan is a summer intern at the Women’s Sports Foundation. She plays soccer at Syracuse University.