Student Well-Being

School Sports Are Back. Where Are the Athletes?

By Ariel Gans — April 20, 2022 5 min read
A group of co-ed students, basketball players huddle together on the court and raise their fists in triumph and solidarity. The shot is from overhead.
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Sofia Velasquez, 15, a soccer player at Acero Garcia High School in the West Lawn neighborhood of Chicago, played her third game of the season on April 18. It should’ve been her eighth, but five rival teams cancelled because they didn’t have enough athletes to play.

That was likely a common scenario this school year as student interest in school sports has nosedived since the start of the pandemic. Nearly 3 in 10 students who were athletes pre-pandemic are no longer interested in playing organized sports, according to a nationally representative survey by the Aspen Institute and Utah State University. This is up from 19 percent—nearly 1 in 5 students—in June 2020.

This decline could have long-term consequences for students, experts say. High school athletes are less likely than non-athletes to be obese or experience mental health problems like anxiety and depression. They are also more likely to go to college and experience higher levels of self-esteem, according to studies compiled by the Aspen Institute, which detail the benefits of regular physical activity.

Illness and fear of contracting COVID-19 may be some of the reasons for the drop in interest, but Velasquez said she’s also noticed that “this year, there’s a lot of girls that just don’t want to try anymore. Or they think it’s pointless to try. I’ve heard that and then I’ve also just seen it.”

‘No point’ in going back

Velasquez said she thinks many students lack the motivation to re-join school sports because they got out of the habit of playing during pandemic shutdowns. She said she knows seniors that played on her team as underclassmen before the pandemic, but then “gave up.”

“They see no point in going back to it,” Velasquez said. “There’s a possibility it could be taken away again, because I know a lot of championships and state tournaments were canceled because of the pandemic, and that crushed a lot of people, discouraged them from wanting to go back because of how hard they would work.”

Velasquez said she thinks her peers may be anxious to return to school sports.

“A lot of sophomores are kind of freshmen in a way, because they didn’t go to school for that first year,” she added. “So I feel like they’re still scared or nervous to open up and try new things because they’re so used to being to themselves during the pandemic.”

Teenagers already becoming less fit

Pandemic shutdowns brought down levels of high school student fitness, some data suggest. A study of one high school found that, compared with previous classes of teenagers, the percentage of overweight and obese students more than doubled across boys and girls in the 2020-21 school year, when schools were shut down for five months, and lower body fitness, as assessed by jumping, sprinting, and agility tests, was impaired for both genders as well. The National Library of Medicine published the study in December.

Dan Dejager, a physical education teacher at Meraki High School in Fair Oaks, Calif., said the decrease in fitness levels at his school created obstacles for his students to get back into sports.

“Because students didn’t have as much of an opportunity to go to sports practices, participate in competitions, or be part of a team, it’s hard for them to go back after school when maybe they’re afraid their movement skills aren’t as good as they were,” Dejager said.

Beyond the drop in physical fitness, Dejager said, there are behavioral and social-emotional consequences for students who stay away from sports.

“Social-emotional learning happens naturally in a physical education or sports setting,” he said. “Students are working together on a team, learning those teamwork skills, learning how to be a leader, when it’s time to be a leader, learning how to be respectful of one another.”

Terri Drain, the president of the Society of Health and Physical Educators, who taught for 34 years and coached high school field hockey, said these setbacks are a “lingering effect” of the pandemic.

“They’re not developing those play skills and those cooperative skills. It’s a huge hit,” Drain said.

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Velasquez said she’s noticed a cultural shift in her school around sports.

“A lot of people just feel a lot lazier,” she said. “No one really wants to try in sports or clubs or anything.”

“I think one possibility could be being so used to not having to do anything, because when we were in online school, I know that people could be very lazy and to themselves,” she added. “They got used to that habit of not trying, especially because online classes are so easy to pass.”

School culture also plays a noticeable role in motivating students to participate in school sports, said Jay Coakley, a sociologist at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, who researches youth sports and development.

“For high school students, there was encouragement within student culture. The status structure, and the reward structure within the student body are all things that encourage kids to go out for sports,” Coakley said.

Schools need to broaden the sports menu

Student participation in some sports may have also declined because students are withdrawing to participate in sports they’re more interested in, he added.

The number of sports options available to students are not meeting the demand, according to a report by the Aspen Institute showing results from a survey conducted during the 2020-21 school year. When students were asked what physical activities outside of the traditional interscholastic teams they wanted, they listed strength training first (35 percent), followed by biking (24 percent), skateboarding (21 percent), yoga (21 percent), and climbing (20 percent).

“We know the benefits of being physically active, but we’d have to provide different forms of it to students to meet where they are and their interests and needs,” Jon Solomon, the editorial director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, said.

“The menu needs to be updated and particularly needs to be updated to include more casual and fitness-focused activities,” he added.

The number one reason high school students play sports is to have fun, according to the Aspen Institute report. Two-thirds of high school athletes said they engage so they can play with and make new friends. Velasquez said the bonds she’s made with her teammates motivate her to keep playing soccer for her school.

“I love soccer because of the friendships and the bonds that I’ve made,” Velasquez said. “Not only in the group, but it helps me make more friends outside because I have friends from all grades. And then to make it better, we’re all a team, we’re always together, it’s very motivational.”

Michelle Huff, a softball coach and health and physical education teacher at Metuchen High School in Metuchen, N.J., said she thinks the 24 girls on her team have stuck with her because of the family-like relationship they’ve cultivated.

You’ve got to build that rapport,” Huff said. “They’ve got to buy into the culture of what you are presenting them.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 11, 2022 edition of Education Week as School Sports Are Back. Where Are the Athletes?

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