Middle School Sports are Essential To Adolescents’ Health
Childhood obesity is on the rise and in the spotlight of campaigns at both state and national levels, most notably Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative. But at the same time, school districts in almost every state are faced with the very real possibility of budget cuts. In many communities, middle school sports and other extra curricular activities are on the chopping block.
Certainly, deciding where to cut funding is no easy task. But if we are serious about our youths’ health (not just physical health, but also social adjustment, psychological health, and emotional well-being), we should think twice before eliminating team sports, especially at the middle school level, where they have been shown to be particularly essential as a positive influence in students’ growth.
Without Team Sports: The Alternatives Aren’t Good
As much as we’d like to imagine that adolescents will spend their free after school hours playing basketball with a neighbor in the driveway, it’s simply not true anymore.
If not enrolled in a sport, most kids will ride the bus home after school, where the first thing they’ll do is plop down in front of the TV. or computer (that is, if they aren’t already glued to their cell phone as soon as the last school bell rings).
Experimentation with drugs and alcohol, as well as getting involved with tougher crowds, are also very real possibilities. These aren’t just doomsday threats espoused by fearful parents: kids themselves attest that team sports are what keep them out of trouble.
“It changed my life…it showed me that there is something else I could do instead of drugs and all that bad stuff.” (“What Students Say About Mental Health”)
“Student Monique Zevada said mentors in the sports program helped her change her attitude toward life and school. A few years ago she was starting fights; now she’s planning to go to college.” (“Youth baseball program helps keep kids out of trouble.”)
Team Sports and Physical health
For kids who do have access to school sports, one of the most immediate and obvious benefits of middle school sports is that of physical health. For many kids, this is the only physical activity they will get outside of mandated physical education, which is often minimal. Study after study has linked childhood obesity to a ‘one-two punch’ of sedentary lifestyle and poor nutrition, and a recent study found that teens and pre-teens are even less active on the weekends.
Keeping school-sponsored team sports funded is the only way most kids are going to get the exercise they need. If other opportunities (such as rec club sports) are available in a community, it’s only a small percentage of kids whose parents can afford the costly club fees. Plus, with school sports, a students’ friends are likely to be in it, which encourages them to join and stay involved.
Team Sports and Social Skills
The social aspect that draws many kids to participate in team sports is then bolstered by the experience itself. Especially because technology is so isolating, many of these kids don’t have the skills the social problem-solving skills that they should at that age. In fact, many don’t even know how to connect with new peers their own age and make new friends.
In addition to learning to be part of a team, participating in school sports also gives adolescents another set of adult role models beyond their parents. Kids sometimes believe that their parents ‘have’ to love them: hearing inspiring words from another adult (a coach or an assistant coach) can be extremely influential in how a student interacts with peers and perceives him or herself.
Team Sports and Personal Development
In fact, studies have proven that kids who participate in youth clubs gain a stronger sense of who they are as a person because of their experiences interacting with others. And a very recent study shows that 12-14 year olds who participate in team sports in particular (not just physical activities) report drastically higher life satisfaction than kids who don’t play sports. And what about the alternative, those kids who head home and spend a couple hours watching TV while their peers are at practice? The more media teens are exposed to, the more depressed they are likely to be.
The Bottom Line
School-sponsored sports are the only team sports available and accessible to the vast majority of middle school students, and societal trends—like them or not—mean that most kids will either stay inside, glued to a TV or computer screen or will get in trouble unless we make it easy, affordable, and fun for them to do otherwise.
Cutting middle school sports will have drastic and measurable consequences on the physical health, social skills, and mental and emotional well being of students whose programs are cut. Administrators, teachers, and parents would do well to strongly consider these issues before reducing or eliminating funding for these essential activities in their districts.