Major support for MindShift comes from
Landmark College
upper waypoint

How Can High School Sports Better Serve Students?

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

Girl stretching on a field
 (Courtney Hale/iStock)

Despite the growing body of evidence that shows how physical activity is essential for health, well-being and student engagement, high schools offer fewer opportunities for competition and play today than they did just a few years ago.

The Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program recently released the findings of its years-long study on high school sports. The report emerged from an extensive series of roundtable meetings with scores of experts in the field; data analysis on students, sports and high schools; and additional interviews to complete the picture.

Overall, a minority of kids are active in school through sports or physical education. The report included this data:

  • On average, 38.8% of students in public schools played high school sports during 2017-18. The percentage was lower for kids in urban schools (32.6%) and higher among those in rural areas (42.2%). More high school boys (42.7%) than girls (35.1%) played sports.
  • The number of kids who took part in physical education for one day a week or more has dropped precipitously since 1991. Just 35% of freshmen, 26% of sophomores, 22% of juniors and 20% of seniors engaged in PE in 2019. In 1991, the percentage of students by grade was much higher: 66%, 52%, 27% and 21%, respectively.
  • Between 2011 and 2019, kids’ overall rate of physical activity fell: 29% of kids reported being active for an hour or more a day in 2011, versus 23% in 2019.
  • The inverse was true of online activity. In 2009, just 25% of students reported spending three hours or more on their screens. That number had climbed to 46% ten years later.

The most surprising finding for Tom Farrey, who runs the Sports and Society Program, and who co-authored the report with Jon Solomon, is “that the supply of sports experiences provided by high schools doesn’t meet student demand.”

This “1970s model” of sports, as Farrey put it, is out of date for 2022. Kids want all kinds of athletic options, way beyond the standard menu of sports that schools typically provide—like football, basketball and track and field. Teenagers expressed enthusiasm for biking, yoga, strength-training and archery, among other activities, suggesting that more kids would participate in sports and PE if schools were open to expanding their options.


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.

  1. 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.
  2. Keep on top of students’ athletic interests with regular surveys, then adjust sports options accordingly.
  3. 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.
  4. Think beyond traditional team sports and offer kids intramurals and club teams, which are less expensive and more inclusive.
  5. Ally with community groups like YMCAs and Boys & Girls Clubs to make up for limited space at school.
  6. Expand the education requirements for coaches beyond the basic certification. Train them regularly in how to run healthy and positive sports programs.
  7. To ensure student safety, have a qualified athletic trainer on staff or available when needed.
  8. 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.

lower waypoint
next waypoint