While athletic skills haven’t drawn as much attention as math and reading performance, new data suggests students’ sports engagement also took a hit during the pandemic.
Nationwide, more than 7.6 million high school students participated in school sports in the 2021-22 school year, according to a new survey released this week by the National Federation of State High School Associations. That marks a 4 percent drop since 2018-19, with girls’ sports losing more athletes than boys’ sports.
Sports educators also warn that, just as many students who experienced school disruptions during the pandemic lost academic ground, student athletes have experienced “learning loss” in sports.
“While our overall numbers have been really exciting this fall, our kids are coming in less skilled,” said Ann Paulls-Neal, the head coach of girls’ track and field at Highland High School and a physical education teacher at Wherry Elementary School, both in Albuquerque, N.M.
This fall has been a mixed blessing for varsity sports at Highland. Boys’ football fielded a team of 60, back to pre-pandemic levels. The girls’ volleyball team tryouts had its biggest turnout in five years.
But Paulls-Neal said it’s become clear the pandemic has deepened disparities for student-athletes in high-poverty schools like her own.
Higher-income student-athletes were more likely to have access to private gyms, she said, and many wealthier families in Albuquerque even drove their students into Arizona and Texas to participate in club sports when official school district sports were cancelled last year due to ongoing COVID-19 infection concerns.
“A lot of our kids haven’t had the opportunities to practice their skills,” she said.
Nationwide, federal health data show less than a third of children ages 6 to 17 in families with incomes below the federal poverty level played sports, versus 70 percent of children in families with incomes more than four times the federal poverty level.
Fewer opportunities to practice and play competitively have led to slower growth in athletic skills, particularly in technical sports such as pole vault, long jump, and throwing competitions in track and field, Paulls-Neal said.
“I think it was more noticeable for track being so individual,” she said. “Those technique events need so many reps in so much time [to practice], and the kids just didn’t get that for almost two years.”
For example, the top girls’ high jump in the state track-and-field competition this fall was 5"4'—more than two inches lower than 2018-19 high jumps. “Many of our athletes were jumping two to four to six inches lower than normal,” Paulls-Neal said.
For many traditional varsity sports, she predicts it will take teams three years to return to pre-pandemic skill levels.
“Usually you look at your junior class as being some of your best athletes; they’ve had a chance to show some leadership and grow and develop so that they’re ready to contribute on varsity,” she said. “But it’s pretty common in all of our programs right now to see less juniors and seniors than there are freshmen and sophomores.
“When you look at juniors,” she continued, “they finished 8th grade online, they started high school online and by the time it got to their sophomore year and school was normal, a lot of them really felt like they missed that window” for varsity sports.
More diverse sports interests
Leaders of the national federation were optimistic about their new data, noting sports programs have been so unstable in the pandemic that they could not conduct the survey at all in the last couple of years.
“We’re excited to see this many that have returned to the level of participation, and we’re not altering seasons and altering roster numbers and things like that,” said Karissa Niehoff, the CEO of NFSHSA. “So soon after COVID—and really we’re not after COVID yet—we feel like the numbers that we’ve gotten back are encouraging.”
The falloff in overall sports participation also has been coupled with broadening interests in less-common sports. “We’re seeing an increase in the number of overall sports offered, which is exciting,” Niehoff said. “It’s opening up new opportunities.”
Football remains the most popular boys’ sport, with more than 973,000 students, the NFSHSA found. While participation in the traditional 11-player game fell 3 percent, there has been a 12 percent increase in players for smaller-scaled games, such as six-, eight-, and nine-player football.
While traditional football has faced a backlash over concerns over traumatic brain injuries from concussions (including two recent deaths in New Jersey), Niehoff said the number of smaller and rural schools offering the sport has increased, in part because it has been easier to field teams for the smaller-scale boys’ games and girls’ flag football in small schools.
Outdoor track and field was the most popular girls’ sport nationwide in 2021-22, with nearly 457,000 students playing, the NFSHSA found, but girls’ volleyball has grown the fastest, with more than 454,000 students.
NFSHSA also found rising interest in school-based e-sports, in which students play video games competitively in teams.
Kristen Kraft, a former Kansas Principal of the Year in 2021 and education consultant for the High School E-Sports League, said the rise of e-sports in her own Andover High School during the pandemic brought engagement from a totally different population from traditional student-athletes.
“It was amazing to me, from the principal perspective, how many kids were involved,” Kraft said. “Now coming back [from school disruptions], kids are really struggling to find their place. And I really saw an entire group of kids that I’d never seen connected to our school before.”
The survey also showed a dramatic increase in the popularity of unified sports programs, in which intellectually disabled students play on the same teams as their classmates. Twenty states now have at least some districts with unified programs, up from 10 pre-pandemic, and the number of students participating has grown nearly 10-fold, from about 5,500 in 2018-19 to nearly 48,000 in 2021-22.
“In unified sports programs, it’s been a tremendous increase,” Niehoff said. “In almost every public high school, you have an identified population of intellectually disabled kids. And I will tell you, as a former high school principal, there is nothing better for the culture and climate in a school than starting a unified sports program where regular education kids are matched with intellectually disabled kids and they engage in sport.”
“The spirit, the comradery, the mentorship, the friendship—it brings you to tears to see what this experience does for kids,” she added.
A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2022 edition of Education Week as School Sports Participation Drops, Raising Concern About ‘Physical Learning Loss’