Sport and Youth Obesity in America

Author: Jim Schmutz, ASEP Executive Director


Arguably the most exciting first week ever of the NCAA men's basketball tournament just concluded on Sunday. With multiple games being decided by last-second makes and misses, the tournament evoked images of young boys and girls reliving the games in their driveways, parks, and school yards - complete with play-by-play commentary and game-clock countdown - culminating with buzzer-beating game-winning shots for their Spartans, Big Red, Huskies, or Panthers.

Today sadly the spontaneous pick-up game remains more often an image rather than reality. On March 18, the Journal of Pediatrics reported results from a Kaiser Permanente study. After evaluating the electronic health records of 710,949 southern California youth, ranging in age from 2-19, results showed that 7.3% of boys and 5.5% of girls were extremely obese (defined as having a body mass index greater than the 99th percentile for age). That's about 45,000 from this group alone. "There is an alarming high frequency of extremely obese children," said study author Dr. Corinna Koebnick, a research scientist at Kaiser Permanente Southern California Department of Research and Evaluation in Pasadena. Dr. Koebnick explained that the obesity epidemic is driven by a combination of lack of physical activity and poor eating habits.

What role can you as athletic administrators and coaches play in helping address what is now a national epidemic? Everyone knows the story of Michael Jordan being cut from his varsity team in tenth grade. Jordan has cited this temporary setback as a motivating factor that contributed to his success. Few people know Kevin Feeney's story. He is a self-described high school basketball role player who wasn't even recruited by Division III schools. He enrolled at Xavier and satisfied his passion for the game through an intramural league. As a junior and after two years of intramural hoops, Feeney tried out and earned a walk-on spot on Xavier's team - which has earned a spot among the men's sweet sixteen. While these are two very unique circumstances, consider the motivating factor in both instances: enjoyment derived from playing a sport they loved. We need to help youth find their passion for sport.

At the scholastic level, we have to look at ways to encourage continued sport participation, even with the reality of cutting athletes from teams. Few athletes will ever realize the success of Michael Jordan or Kevin Feeney for that matter. But for athletes who get cut from their high school teams, administrators, coaches, and parents can and should encourage them to play in local age-group leagues and individual-sport competitions for the natural benefits that result from sport participation. The mantra should be, "Even if you can't play on this team, if you love it, you should go play it."

At the youth-sport level where 70% of participating athletes stop at age 13, it is equally important to encourage and sustain play for the love of the sport. Over the last 20 years much emphasis and pressure has been placed on youth to select a single sport on which to focus and to do it at an early age. At last week's AAHPERD convention, a distinguished panel of nationally recognized experts all agreed that there is no significant research-based evidence for or against sport specialization. So while parents and coaches push athletes to choose, there is no real evidence to suggest that specialization is a predictor of collegiate or professional success. It seems logical then that even those athletes with aspirations of playing beyond high school should be encouraged and allowed to continue participation in multiple sports, especially at younger ages.

We also need to think differently. How can we take advantage of the elements that compete for the attention of today's youth and integrate them with the sport experience? One example is, a virtual community designed to appeal to young athletes and reinforce their participation by leveraging technology to enhance the youth sport experience. also adds value for parents and coaches and exemplifies how technology can help make sport fun.

Perhaps most importantly we need to continue to help parents rethink and define what is most important about sport participation. Athletes tell us that having fun is most important. And while winning is fun, it's far from the primary characteristic that young athletes use to define a fun experience. Parents and coaches who put athletes first by understanding their unique interests and needs are able to shape and balance the experience to suit the individual in a way that maximizes their interest and attention. Athletes who are interested and attentive are more likely to practice hard, develop skills, exhibit discipline, be physically fit, play hard, work as a team, and demonstrate sportsmanship. I would argue that athletes who experience fun and multi-dimensional personal growth through sport are more likely to sustain their involvement beyond age 13.

Although involvement in organized sport is not the only opportunity for today's youth to be physically active, increasing participation in organized sport can help combat childhood obesity. You can play an important role in the efforts to improve the health of our nation's children by making your sport program fun. Children will want to continue playing because they enjoy it. As a result, they will learn that hard work results in positive outcomes, and they'll ultimately establish a lifelong love of physical activity. Creating a culture of lifelong sport and activity in your community will aid in the national fight against the childhood obesity epidemic.

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