Schools should consider other sports and activities to meet the needs of more students


One of the familiar sentiments expressed during the pandemic was, “I’ll be happy when things get back to normal.” Now, two years from the March 2020 shutdown, we’re trying to remember what “normal” was and whether it’s still the best way forward.

High school sports and performing arts programs in our nation’s schools are closer to “normal” than they have been in two years. However, the question now may be whether “normal” is enough to meet the needs of high school students.

With issues that have worsened during the pandemic – physical inactivity, mental health issues, teenage suicides – school leaders may be faced with discovering a new ‘normal’ that offers more opportunities for students to participate in these vital programs.

From 1989 to 2018, high school sports participation grew from 5.2 million to 7.9 million participants. Then, in the 2018-19 school year — the last full year before the pandemic — the NFHS reported a decline in athletic participation for the first time in 30 years.

The NFHS is tracking attendance for the first time in two years and will have those numbers in early fall; and while we are cautiously optimistic that activity levels are rising again, we recognize that “normal” may need to be redefined to meet the needs of all students interested in high school activity programs.

Earlier this month, the Aspen Institute suggested ways schools could engage more students in sport and physical activity as part of its Project Play report. Although the interscholastic model of sports-based education in our nation’s schools has been successful for more than 100 years, the report suggests that schools explore other options to ensure all students have the opportunity to participate.

One of the eight sections of the Project Play report is “Introducing Other Forms of Play”. In addition to interscholastic sports, which accounted for nearly eight million participants in the last NFHS survey, the Aspen report suggests that schools consider offering intramural activities, student-run clubs and activity opportunities community.

The NFHS encourages participation in any activity program that addresses the health and well-being – as well as the growth and development – ​​of high school students. Some of these other options may meet the needs of students who have not previously participated in any school activity, and expanding opportunities for increased student engagement should be an ongoing goal of every school. As long as facilities are available and adults are available to run programs, expansion should always be the goal.

Beyond other models, the scope of interscholastic sports could be broadened to accommodate students who might be interested in additional sports offerings – perhaps those activities that might engage a greater number of students at minimal costs to school.

In fact, recent NFHS attendance surveys have indicated that schools are beginning to offer additional sports. While some of the traditional sports such as football, basketball and baseball have remained stable and/or experienced declines over the past 10 years, other sports have seen significant gains. Participation in boys’ and girls’ lacrosse has increased by 19% over this period, and girls’ and boys’ soccer have attracted 70,668 participants since 2012, an increase of 9%.

Interest in men’s volleyball (26% gain) and women’s volleyball (8% gain) has continued to grow over the past 10 years, and competitive spirit has increased by 38% during this period.

Providing new sporting opportunities is already underway in many states. The 2018-2019 survey indicated high school student participation in 70 different sports, as well as 14 adapted sports for students with disabilities. Some of the most popular non-traditional sports were bowling, weightlifting, badminton, flag football, and archery.

In addition to sports, schools should consider opportunities for student participation in performing arts and other activity programs. It is estimated that there are currently six to eight million participants in music, speech and debate, and drama programs, as well as other activities such as Scholastic Bowl, journalism, creative writing, academic competition , chess, yearbook, cheering/dance, art, newspaper/magazine production, math team, rodeo, among many others.

One of the components of the NFHS 2021-2025 Strategic Plan is the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of students. We know from surveys conducted in 2020 that when sports and other activities were suspended during the pandemic, large numbers of students suffered from depression and anxiety, and some states reported an increase in the number of suicides.

These studies have confirmed that participation in high school sports and activities can play a vital role in the social, emotional, and mental health of high school students. The NFHS has produced an online training course through the NFHS Learning Center – Student Mental Health and Suicide Prevention – and the NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee will continue to offer guidance in this area.

We know high school students have lacked participation in sports, performing arts, and other activities during the pandemic, so the value of these programs, along with other options suggested in the Project Play report , has become even more important.

The ultimate goal is to involve as many students as possible in sports and other high school activity programs, or other school activities that promote growth and development and better prepare students for life after school. high school graduation.


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