Youth Sports


The term youth sports refers to sports programs designed specifically for young people. Although no consistent definition is available, the term youth most commonly applies to boys and girls under the age of 18.


A team of five- and six-year-old boys play a game of flag football in Flagstaff, Arizona, May 2016. Youth sports allow children to begin learning the skills and techniques that will be needed at higher competetive levels.

A team of five- and six-year-old boys play a game of flag football in Flagstaff, Arizona, May 2016. Youth sports allow children to begin learning the skills and techniques that will be needed at higher competetive levels.
(© Derrick Neill/


In 2008, the National Council of Youth Sports conducted a survey of its members to determine participation in youth sports programs in the United States. The study found that the 112 member organizations that responded reported a total of 44,031,080 participants, of whom two-thirds were boys and one-third girls. By comparison, a similar survey conducted 10 years earlier found a total of 32,822,352 participants, with an almost identical boy/girl breakdown. The age distribution of participants was almost the same for boys and girls, with the largest group being those between the ages of 16 and 18 (35% and 39%, respectively), followed by the 10–12 age group (23% and 19%), and 13–15 age group (17% and 12%). The study found that only in the youngest age group, 6 and under, was there a decrease in inequity between boy and girl participation between 1997 and 2008.

A more recent study InSports Centers provides information about the most popular sports among young Americans, as of 2016. In that study, over 45 million youth from the ages of 6 to 17 participate in at least one sport annually. Basketball was found to be the most popular sport among these youth, with 9.5 million participants. Second most popular was outdoor soccer with 7.5 million boys and girls, and third was baseball with 6.5 million. Rounding out the top ten were: tackle football (3.5 million), gymnastics (3 million), volleyball (2.5 million), track and field (2.5 million), indoor soccer (2 million), touch football (2 million), and softball (1.5 million). Other popular sports that do not necessary have to be played on a team (sometimes called individual sports) include bicycle riding, bowling, fishing, golf, tennis, swimming, dancing, horseback riding, martial arts, and skateboarding. Obviously, individual sports, such as bicycling and bowling, are likely to have more participants since they do not require the organization of groups of people to participate.


Boys and girls have participated in sports for as long as sports existed. Organized sports, such as Little League Baseball and Pop Warner Football, are more recent phenomena. Local, regional, and national organizations devoted to the supervision and promotion of youth sports are an even more recent development. The National Alliance for Youth Sports, for example, was founded in 1981 to focus on training adult coaches to work in a variety of youth sports. The mission of the organization now is “to make the sports experience safe, fun, and healthy for all children.” The National Council of Youth Sports which serves about 60 million boys and girls registered for organized youth sports programs (as of 2017), was founded in 1979 to provide a unified voice for amateur youth sports. It currently is a membership organization with 185 members. Some individual youth sports organizations are older than the two national organizations. For example, Little League Baseball and Softball (officially called Little League International) was founded in June 1939 and, as of the end of the 2014 season, consists of nearly 2.4 million baseball and softball players worldwide, down from its peak of almost 3 million players in the 1990s.


Youth sports is a very large field that includes opportunities for boys and girls under the age of 19 to participate in virtually every type of sporting activity. Some examples of organizations subsumed under this term are Little League Baseball (which itself has a number of divisions that include Tee Ball, Minor League Baseball, 9–10-Year-Old Baseball, Junior League Baseball, Senior League Baseball, Big League Baseball, the Challenger Division, and Girls and Boys Softball); Babe Ruth Baseball, Dixie Youth Baseball, Pony Baseball, American Youth Football, Pop Warner Football, the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League, the American Youth Soccer Organization, and the Junior National Team Squads of the USA Field Hockey organization.

In addition to well-known national organizations such as these, there are an almost endless list of local and regional youth sport organizations. The National Council of Youth Sports ( ) lists a large number of individual programs for youth baseball, basketball, football, hockey, wrestling, and many other sports. As an example, the National Amateur Baseball Federation is shown to be a nonprofit organization that hosts regional and national championship tournaments across the United States for youth nine years and younger.



The issue of physical injuries to boys and girls who participate in sports is one of considerable importance. Young people's bodies are still growing, so there is likely to be an increased risk for physical injury not experienced by older competitors. In addition, many young participants are less experienced and less skillful than are older players. An overview of the extent of the risk to young participants in sporting activities was provided at the December 2010 conference of the National Athletic Trainers' Association. A special committee studying youth sport injuries gave the nation a grade of C+ for its efforts in preventing such injuries. The committee pointed out that an average of 8,000 young people are treated in emergency departments each day of the year as a result of sporting injuries. On average, 63,000 young people suffer brain injuries during sporting events each year, and in 2010, 48 youths died while participating in sporting events, about half of them as the result of a brain injury. The committee also noted that high school athletes suffer injuries at a rate twice that of college-level athletes. Gender differences are also not uncommon in youth sport injuries. For example, female basketball players are 240% as likely to suffer from a physical injury than male basketball players (a total of 13,000 such injuries in 2010).

In September 2016, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that over 2.6 million children up to the age of 19 years (a group that can be considered youth) are treated in emergency departments each year for recreation- and sports-related injuries. The CDC reports that such recreation- and sports-related injuries are the most common injuries found within this large age group. Some of the more common injuries found within these children include sprains and strains (injury to a ligament and injury to a muscle or tendon, respectively); growth plate injuries (injury to the tissues at the end of long bones, such as those of the hand, finger, forearm, upper and lower leg, and foot); and repetitive motion injuries (those that cause stress fractures, or hairline fractures of a bone, and tendinitis, or inflammation of a tendon.

See also Recess and unstructured play .



Ginsburg, Richard D., Stephen Durant, and Amy Baltzell. Whose Game Is It, Anyway?: A Guide to Helping Your Child Get the Most from Sports, Organized by Age and Stage. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.

Harris, Sally S., Steven J. Anderson, and Andrew J. M. Gregory. Care of the Young Athlete. Elk Grove Village: American Academy of Pediatrics, 2010.

Herring, Stanley A. Youth Sports Concussions. Philadelphia: Saunders, 2012.

Hyman, Mark. Until It Hurts: America's Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids. Boston: Beacon Press, 2009.

Patel, Dilip R., et al., eds. Adolescence and Sports. New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2010.


“Summit on the Youth Sports Safety Crisis in America.” Youth Sports Safety Alliance. January 12, 2011. (accessed January 22, 2017).


National Alliance For Youth Sports, 2050 Vista Pkwy, West Palm Beach, FL, 33411, (561) 684-1141, (800) 729-2057, Fax: (561) 684-2546,, .

National Council of Youth Sports, 7185 S.E. Seagate Lane, Stuart, FL, 34997, (772) 781-1452, Fax: (772) 781-7298,, .

David E. Newton, AB, MA, EdD

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.