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What Healthy Sport Index Can Teach Us About Returning to Youth Sports

As youth sports return in some communities, there’s a greater need than ever for parents to identify the right sports to meet their child’s health needs. Different sports have different benefits, and different children have different needs.

Kids have been missing the physical, social and emotional benefits of playing sports for many months. A new study by the University of Wisconsin found that 65% of adolescent athletes in Wisconsin reported anxiety symptoms in May, with 25% suffering moderate or severe anxiety. Using historical data, the study found the rate of mild to severe depression in youth athletes increased from 31% to 68%. Physical activity was down 50% in May.

First and foremost, any return to play should follow advice from public health experts on whether it’s safe based on local transmission of COVID-19. Phased returns to sports are best. High-contact sports may carry different COVID-19 risks than low-contact sports. The Aspen Institute’s Return to Play risk assessment tool offers guidance on assessing sports based on the risks of contracting and transmitting the virus.

As kids return, there are other health needs to consider when picking sports. How much are athletes moving their bodies in each sport? How are prevalent are injuries by sport? How has playing each sport changed the behaviors of its athletes, such as emotional and social skills, academic motivation, and prevalence of abusing drugs and alcohol?

The Healthy Sport Index, created by the Aspen Institute in 2018, combines data and expert analysis to identify the relative benefits and risks of participating in the 10 most popular high school boys and girls sports. Parents and youth can use the tool to compare each sport by physical activity, safety and psychosocial benefits, based on how much a person emphasizes each of those three health categories. Users also receive expert advice on other sports that kids can sample to improve their health and skills in their primary sport.

No single experience is the same in youth sports. It’s all about how the sport gets delivered by a coach and organization. But as we start to return to play, there are several key findings from the Healthy Sport Index that can guide the decision-making when parents and youth are selecting sports to try.