In wake of COVID-19, U of T researcher finds 'steep decline' in youth participation in sport

Children playing soccer

(Photo by iStock)

COVID-19 shutdowns have given millions a glimpse of a world without sport. 

But interruptions to athletic programs due to the coronavirus were also an opportunity to think of better ways for youth to develop through sport after the pandemic. Simon Darnell, an associate professor in the University of Toronto's Faculty Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education (KPE) and director of the Centre for Sport Policy Studies, helped conduct a research project that evaluated youth access and engagement in sport in the wake of the pandemic. 

Simon Darnell
Simon Darnell

Despite a slight uptick in youth engagement in individual sport and activities such as running, strength training or conditioning, the report found large declines in team and facility-based sports such as soccer, basketball, hockey, swimming and baseball.

“The impact of COVID-19 on sport access and engagement has been drastic,” Darnell says. “There has been a steep decline in the frequency of sport participation overall, as well as changes to both how and where youth have been able to access opportunities to engage in sport.”

Darnell worked on the report – titled “Change the Game” – with Daniel Sailofsky, a PhD student in sociology at McGill University, and Bryan Heal, manager of research and evaluation at the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) Foundation. The study, the largest of its kind in Canada, received funding from Mitacs, a non-profit national research oganization.

Between March and May of this year, the researchers surveyed close to 7,000 youth of different backgrounds, including race, geography, age, gender, ability and income, to get a better understanding of barriers to sport participation after the pandemic and explore opportunities to build back better – with a focus on more equitable access to sports for youth.

They found that, while different virtual initiatives have been introduced across the sport sector, the increase in virtual engagement paled in comparison to the proportion of youth who previously enrolled in sport or recreation offerings in-person and who are no longer able to participate. 

“To make things worse, youth who have relied on Ontario’s school system for accessible opportunities and competition have now experienced two consecutive years of disruption due to the pandemic,” Darnell says. “Almost unanimously, they expressed feelings of frustration and sadness about the loss of sport.” 

The full report includes an interactive visual dashboard that shows how youth responded to key topics, from how many participated in sports multiple times per week before COVID-19 to how those patterns have changed.

It also includes suggestions on how to rebuild the sector in positive ways, including:

  • Expanding access to free, low-cost or subsidized youth sport and sport for development opportunities
  • Developing a culture of representation and inclusion that is supported by policies and processes
  • Designing post-pandemic plans around why youth play – making it fun, social and safe
  • Investing in sport to build community belonging

“We set out to better understand how youth from across this land engage in sport and how to build a more equitable sport system for them,” Darnell says. “Along the way, it became the largest youth sports study of its kind in Canada – one which will provide sport and recreation providers, policy-makers, funders and future researchers with valuable data and recommendations to change the game for the better.” 

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