Leaders hope to boost youth sports participation | Sports

sStudies that have highlighted Arizona as one of the worst states for youth sports participation have prompted a counterattack by coaches and community leaders who want to change the narrative.

A 2023 study from the Aspen Institute’s Play Project showed that Arizona ranked second to last (42.6%) in the country for the percentage of youth ages 6 to 17 who played on a team or took lessons. Nationally, the number of Hispanic youth participating in sports declined by a whopping 7.9% from 2017 to 2022, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, a statistic that could impact Arizona’s overall number because it ranks sixth in the nation in Where the population is of Hispanic origin.

“Seeing the decline in youth sports in general is unfortunate, because I know how important it is to move the body in general,” said Dallas Braden, a former Oakland Athletics player who was born in Phoenix and played youth sports. “All you have to do is establish a fitness baseline…and it’s directly linked to mental health. Physical and mental health go hand in hand. We’re already influencing some potential developmental milestones and developmental periods that are very important.”

One of the benefits of youth sports is that it allows young people to network. While physical activity is important for youth development, it’s the social impact that experts say stands out.

COVID-19 has had a negative impact on the world. Locally, the nationwide lockdown and extended school absences in the 2020 school year have significantly impacted youth. In Arizona, the shutdown lasted until May 15, when then-Governor Doug Ducey ended the statewide shutdown.

The development of video games and mobile devices has also contributed to the decline in youth participation in sports. As more young people stay home, obesity and feelings of isolation have increased. Research shows that participation in youth sports remains as important as ever.

Youth sports participation is especially valuable for teenagers. Fifty percent of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, according to the World Health Organization. Exercising and consistently participating in physical activity are thought to help promote positive feelings and thoughts, which can lead to positive effects on mental health.

Leaders in the Valley athletic community are confident that their programs are growing strong again.

Despite what may happen in other sports, hockey is thriving in the state, said Christy Aguirre, president of the Coyotes Junior Ice Hockey Program.

“We are basically ice-bound, which means we don’t have any room to expand our program,” she said.

The Jr. team includes The Coyotes have 18 competitive travel teams and 32 home teams, all at maximum capacity.

Arizona hockey already seems to be bucking the national trend. That state’s participation in youth hockey grew 5% from 2021-22 to 2022-23, according to USA Hockey, which tied for seventh nationally.

Flag football is also growing in popularity in the state. With the support of local leaders and coaches, the Arizona Interscholastic Association has decided to make it an official varsity sport starting in the 2023-24 school year.

Jesus Arzaga, who coaches the Mountain View Toros soccer and baseball teams, runs his own youth sports programs. After successfully running the baseball program for the past seven years, he wanted to try something new: his own football camps.

“When you put your child in a competitive atmosphere, it changes them internally and they act a little differently,” Arzaga said.

The Phoenix Dragons, one of Arizona’s leading youth soccer organizations, are also seeing growth. Starting in 2016 with just one team of about 13 kids, all 7 and under, the organization has doubled in size and offers intervention teams for 8-under, 10-under, 12-under, and 14-under.

While searching the Phoenix area for a soccer program for her youngest son, Christine Dixon was unsuccessful. After seeing the opportunity, Dixon and her husband started their own soccer program. Dixon, an educator in her daily life, has seen the many benefits.

“We get kids from all kinds of backgrounds, and we’re in the Central Phoenix area,” Dixon said. “This has become much bigger than football for me in a long time. It’s a lot of work and a lot of time and commitment. But every time I think we should stop doing this, some of the stories or the kids that I see benefiting so much from this make me I feel like we have to keep doing that, (we have to) keep giving kids that opportunity.

The importance of youth sports extends far beyond Arizona. Communities that lack opportunities miss out, Braden said.

“I think it’s probably just trying to do everything you can to make sure you have a strong community sports program that’s accessible to everyone,” he said.

“And that means you have to find a way to mobilize volunteers… If you can emphasize and focus on some of these things and overcome some of the shortcomings that come with that, I think you give yourself a really good fighting chance when young people find something else to do.

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