How Interscholastic Sports Benefit and Impact Youths

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Over 7.9 million teenagers participated in high school sports throughout the 2018-2019 academic year. That’s the third-highest total ever recorded by the National Federation of State High School Associations — and only half a percentage below the all-time high set a few years prior. Any physical activity is good, but teaming up improves young people’s mental and physical health, setting them on a path for greater success.

To learn more, check out the infographic below, created by Ohio University’s Online Master of Athletic Administration.

How team sports benefit youths and how to remove barriers so more young people start to play.

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<p style="clear:both;margin-bottom:20px;"><a href="" rel="noreferrer" target="_blank"><img src="" alt="How team sports benefit youths and how to remove barriers so more young people start to play." style="max-width:100%;" /></a></p><p style="clear:both;margin-bottom:20px;"><a href="" rel="noreferrer" target="_blank">How Interscholastic Sports Benefit and Impact Youths</a></p>

Participation in Team Sports

During the 2018-2019 academic year, 4.5 million boys and 3.4 million girls participated in high school sports. While football kept its top spot as the most popular sport among boys, several other sports showed big growth spurts. Since 2012, participation in girls cheerleading — sometimes called competitive spirit — grew by 38%. Boys volleyball followed, with a 26% increase in participation, and both girls and boys lacrosse combined saw a 19% bump. Girls volleyball, as well as girls and boys soccer, saw modest increases, too.

Physical and Social Benefits of Youth Sports

Participating in sports offers plenty of health benefits. It helps improve weight management; reduces the likelihood of smoking; and decreases the risk of cancer, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure. It also improves cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness. Furthermore, it provides a mental boost. Not only are sports tied to better cognitive function, but adolescents who participate in sports are less likely to struggle with low self-esteem, feel lonely, and suffer from depression.

But the benefits of youth sports don’t stop there. The Women’s Sports Foundation analyzed data from 1989 to 2015 and found high school athletes were more likely to have higher grades and want to go to college and graduate. In fact, they were also less likely to skip class, misbehave, and hate school.

Sports to Improve Your Well-Being

In 2018, researchers from the University of Texas and the Aspen Institute surveyed high school athletes to see how sports impacted their well-being. As a result, they were able to rank sports based on their positive impacts in areas such as personal skills, cognitive skills, goal setting, psychological health, substance abuse, and academic achievement. For girls, the top three team sports were softball, soccer, and basketball. For boys, the top three team sports were football, soccer, and wrestling.

Ways to Boost Team Sport Participation

For several reasons — not just cost — girls, racial and ethnic minorities, youths from households with low socioeconomic status, those living in rural areas, and youths with disabilities don’t participate as much as they could in team sports. But that can change.

First, athletic directors and coaches can make sports fun again by figuring out what young athletes enjoy about being on a team and focus on that. Second, they can make sports meaningful, prioritize skill development over the competition, and make sure to model good sportsmanship. Finally, ADs and coaches should encourage multi-sport participation. Being on one team is great, but participating on several teams can help athletes work out different muscles, grow different skills, expand their friend groups, figure out what sports they like best, and learn to take different styles of direction from different coaches.

Youth Sports Have Lifelong Benefits

The benefits of interscholastic sports for youths are plentiful. Engaging in them helps young people stay physically active while boosting their overall health. Long-term, it helps them be smarter, happier, and less lonely while helping them gain important lifelong skills.


The Aspen Institute, “Benefits of Physical Activity”
The Aspen Institute, “State of Play 2020”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Physical Activity Facts”
Healthy Sport Index, “Psychosocial Survey Component Report”
National Federation of State High School Association, “2018-19 High School Athletics Participation Survey”
National Federation of State High School Associations, “Increasing Student Participation, Retention in High School Sports”
National Federation of State High School Association, “Participation in High School Sports Registers First Decline in 30 Years”
The New York Times, “The Benefits of Exercise for Children’s Mental Health”
Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health, “The National Youth Sports Strategy”
Physical & Health Education America, “Turning the Tide: Time to Increase Participation Numbers in High School Football”
Women’s Sports Foundation, “The State of High School Sports Report”