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Kids can't all be star athletes. Here's how schools can welcome more students to play

Samuele Recchia for NPR

Going into his last tennis match of the school year, high school senior Lorris Nzouakeu knew he might get knocked out in straight sets. He was scheduled for one of the first matches of the day during the regionals competition in western Maryland, against a student from another school who'd won the championship last year.

"So it wasn't really looking good at the start," he laughs. "My goal was definitely to continue rallies and maintain pace and also just have fun."

"Fun" is sometimes hard to find in high school sports. Gunning for college athletic scholarships, many students and families go all in – focusing on one sport and even one position from elementary school. It's also big business – the whole youth sports industry is worth $19 billion dollars, more than the NFL.

For a lot of kids of all ages, sports are not working for them. Less than half of kids play sports at all, and those that do only stick with it for about three years and quit by age 11. That's a whole lot of kids missing out on some of the huge benefits of sports, including spacial awareness, physical activity, and team skills.

Increasingly sports educators, health researchers and parents are pushing back against this trend and arguing that playing sports should be for all kids.

During the last few pandemic years, physical activity fell, while obesity rates and mental health challenges grew, note Tom Farrey and Jon Solomon of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program in a 2022 handbook for reimagining school sports. At the same time, interest in sports has grown, which "presents an historic opportunity for schools to reimagine their approach to sports," they write.

But schools can create space for more types of students in sports. One example of what this looks like in practice is Nzouakeu's high school – Tuscarora High in Frederick County, Md. This school transformed its athletics program to prioritize including kids of all ability levels in sports. It's a model for handling youth sports, argues author and athlete Linda Flanagan, who highlighted the school in her book about youth sports entitled Take Back the Game.

Here's how Tuscarora High does things – plus some guiding principles for how schools can help include more kids in the fun of sports.

Lorris Nzouakeu played tennis for three years at Tuscarora High. He appreciate that his school "gives a lot of space for people to actually engage, even if they don't believe that they're the strongest... it gives plenty of opportunity to be able to grow into the sport."
/ Selena Simmons-Duffin/NPR
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Selena Simmons-Duffin/NPR
Lorris Nzouakeu played tennis for three years at Tuscarora High. He appreciate that his school "gives a lot of space for people to actually engage, even if they don't believe that they're the strongest... it gives plenty of opportunity to be able to grow into the sport."

Offer a variety of sports to appeal to all tastes and talents

Tuscarora is a fairly big school with about 1,600 students – 40% white, a quarter Hispanic, a quarter Black. A third of students get free or reduced lunch.

Half of these students play a school sport, well above the national average of 39% participation. "That's awesome," beams Tuscarora's coordinator of athletics and facilities Chris O'Connor. "That speaks to the number of sports that we offer."

Frederick County schools, including Tuscarora, offer 17 different sports, including golf, swimming and lacrosse, and starting next year, girls flag football. It also has three unified teams, in which students with and without disabilities play together – Tuscarora's unified bocce team won Maryland's state championship this year.

Variety is key because not everyone loves playing football, basketball or baseball, notes Brian Culp, professor of health and physical activity leadership at Kennesaw State University.

"What can happen is that if you're in a school system where you, for instance, have a high amount of African-American students, and you say, 'Well, I'm going to provide basketball and I'm going to provide football,' – you've basically designed their destiny," he says. If a student isn't good at either of these sports or doesn't like it, he explains, they might feel like there's no place in sports for them.

Offering options like fencing or gymnastics can help students find what clicks. "There are things that impact what type of choices people make: Are they skiers? Are they swimmers? Are they runners?" Culp says he himself didn't play a varsity sport until his senior year, when he ran cross country.

Chris O'Connor leads athletics at Tuscarora High. He says it's important to let kids try a variety of sport. His own kids,  a seventh-grader and a fourth-grader, both do three sports so "they can figure out what they like," he says.
/ Selena Simmons-Duffin/NPR
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Selena Simmons-Duffin/NPR
Chris O'Connor leads athletics at Tuscarora High. He says it's important to let kids try a variety of sport. His own kids, a seventh-grader and a fourth-grader, both do three sports so "they can figure out what they like," he says.

Don't force kids – even star players – to specialize

Variety is also important for athletically gifted students to help them branch out, notes Flanagan.

"There's no end to the specializing," she says, of the trend in sports today. A parent may go beyond specializing their child in hockey, she says, to asserting: "My child's a goalie, and don't deviate from that because that's where you're going to make your mark."

She thinks this way of approaching sports robs them of the fun, while also increasing the risks of repetitive stress injuries and potentially limiting a child's identity. In her book she advises: no sports specializing before puberty.

Tuscarora's O'Connor agrees that specializing is a problem. "I think that's what's wrong with youth sports right now in America," he says. "I'm from the mindset that you should do as many different sports as possible because you don't know what you're going to like."

Give kids of varying skill levels opportunities to play

The school system today is geared toward channeling the top-performing young athletes toward collegiate and professional goals, says Flanagan. "If you're at a giant school and you're trying to make the basketball team, you are competing against four grades [worth of students] for five spots," she says. "So where does that leave the kid who's just like, 'Okay, I want to play, but I'm not fantastic'?

"The arms-race nature of it has really had such a terrible impact on kids who might ordinarily grow into it if they had space, they had time," she adds.

Not every family has the resources to develop kids' athletic talents when they're younger, and some kids don't discover an interest right away. For students like this, Tuscarora has low-key, non-competitive sports that students can play during the school day, explains O'Connor — and that have meets every few weeks.

"It's providing that opportunity for the student-athlete in the school day to just have some fun with the sport and be around an adult who knows something about it," he says.

Official school sports also help students who come in as beginners stick with it and get better, says Nzouakeu, the Tuscarora tennis player. He started as a sophomore, and his game has improved steadily, he says. "I know that when I play out there, I can definitely find out which skills I need to practice more and I can take that time to continue getting better."

Use school space and time creatively

School sports are often jammed in after a long day of sitting in classrooms. That's not the only way to do things, notes Flanagan.

"In Finland, after every 45 minutes, they have 15 minutes of recess," she says. "Just this idea of moving your body to clear your head – it's well-established in science that this is so essential for clear thinking and for emotional well-being, too."

She says recess isn't the only way to get physical activity during the school day – intramural and club sports can offer that same kind of outlet, if schools think creatively about space.

"Most gym and field space is not occupied all the time – field space in particular is typically for sports after school," she points out. Why not use that field during a flex period? Or get students scrimmaging in the gym?

To do this, says Culp, you need "a principal, a district that actively promotes physical movement as a part of the school day." He notes decades worth of research showing the benefits of physical activity for kids. "A physically, actively engaged child is a better learner in school," he says "Their self-esteem is high, their self-confidence is high, and their ability to actually deal with challenges in the world is better."

Tuscarora High in Frederick, Md.
/ Selena Simmons-Duffin/NPR
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Selena Simmons-Duffin/NPR
Tuscarora High in Frederick, Md.

PE classes have a good ratio of teacher to student

One challenge for students who aren't confident in their sports skills is that it can be intimidating to try to join in, says Culp, especially if there are a lot of students and only one teacher or coach.

It's like being in a city waiting for a subway. "That train comes through and you're just like, 'I don't know if I want to get on that subway car because it's packed,'" he says. If there are too many other students, some kids may feel they won't get enough support from the coach.

School leadership and school boards can support physical movement, Culp says, by instituting a manageable ratio of educators to students. This can encourage students without a lot of skills (or even reluctance) to feel like they can join in.

High school senior Lorris Nzouakeu says he enjoyed improving his tennis game during high school and he'll keep playing tennis recreationally in college.
/ Selena Simmons-Duffin/NPR
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Selena Simmons-Duffin/NPR
High school senior Lorris Nzouakeu says he enjoyed improving his tennis game during high school and he'll keep playing tennis recreationally in college.

Keep things in perspective

Yes, there are benefits to sports, says Flanagan, but they are not for everyone. With children, "you can't force them to like school or like to read or when to do sports," says Flanagan. "They have to come to it on their own."

Modeling low-key outdoor play and enjoying sports is an important thing parents can do, she says. But Flanagan – who has coached cross country and track and seen the intensity some parents bring to their children's athletic endeavors – says it's important to let kids quit when they want to.

"I don't think forcing kids to play sports is a good idea," she says. "We have this distorted notion here about grit. Obviously grit is important. But I think we shouldn't make children stick with things just because it's a virtue to stick with things and who cares how miserable you are."

That includes young people who never really took to sports at all, and talented athletes who played seriously for years and then decide they've had enough.

And maybe if you give kids a choice, and let them play without having to be the best, they'll discover a life-long love of sport. Lorris Nzouakeu, who just graduated from Tuscarora High, lost his regionals tennis match 6-0, 6-0, but that didn't bother him too much. He says next year in college, he may play on an intramural tennis team, or just recreationally.

"I'd like to continue tennis in college because not only do I think of it as a great pastime, but I also think that it's something that I can just continue doing for myself," he says. "Something I can de-stress with as I continue living my life."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.