THE BLOG
01/28/2015 09:11 am ET Updated Mar 30, 2015

Youth Sports: For Everyone or Elites?

We are a nation obsessed with sports. We are also a nation of obese children and adults.

That's a contradiction that perplexes Tom Farrey, an ESPN reporter and author who has spent the last four years working with The Aspen Institute's youth sports initiative Project Play. That work, which has included contributions from "more than 250 thought leaders," has culminated in a report released Monday: Sport for All, Play for Life.

Before the report was released, Farrey did a presentation at an atypical venue for think tank reports -- the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) convention. Though Farrey was one of the few people walking around the massive Pennsylvania Convention Center without a track suit emblazoned with a soccer organization's logo, he was in the perfect place. Soccer is the shining example of U.S. sports trends today -- it's getting more serious, with youth clubs scrambling for places in national competitions, while fewer kids are playing.

Youth sports participation has plummeted since 2008, according to Sports & Fitness Industry Association numbers cited by Project Play. Team sports regular participation is down from 44.5 percent to 40 percent. Soccer participation is down from 5.6 million to 5 million. U.S. Youth Soccer statistics tell a similar story -- down from nearly 3.15 million to 2.8 million, though the numbers rebounded to 3.05 million in 2014.

Project Play aims to put more emphasis on recreational players, currently buried beneath the needs of elite players. Two of the report's eight "plays" are specifically geared toward recreation play -- encouraging "free play" without incessant coaching and bumping up in-town leagues, as opposed to the costly "travel" competitions that have been reaching farther and farther down the age groups.

Meanwhile, in soccer, the push to get better is intense, and it comes from the top down. In men's soccer, the USA has no major titles and doesn't usually come close. In women's soccer, the once-dominant Americans are threatened by well-organized programs from all over Europe. "Development" is Topic A in any youth soccer gathering.

These goals aren't mutually exclusive. Train more coaches (another Project Play goal), and suddenly the "recreational" players are on the same field as the "elite" players. Specializing in one sport is an idea whose time has gone.

And it makes little sense to run young players off your sport's field and expect your country to get better at it.

So Project Play might challenge our common assumptions about how to chase athletic glory. Who can doubt that's a good thing?