Student record

Number of student-athletes falls, but should rebound after COVID | Coronavirus

The number of high school students participating in sports across the United States fell 4% in the latest survey from the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Those who oversee school sports are confident numbers will return to pre-pandemic levels, although the decline continues a slight downward trend. Even before the pandemic canceled high school sports across the country in 2020, student-athlete participation rates slowed. The 2018-19 turnout report – the most recent until the new report was released last week – showed the first decline in overall turnout in three decades. The reasons, according to stakeholders, range from specialization to the growth of club and travel programs.

Still, those at the national, state and local levels are confident about the direction the trajectory is taking as statewide associations continue to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Given what has happened in our country over the past three years, we believe that a drop of just 4% in total attendance compared to 2018-2019 is quite remarkable,” said Dr. Karissa Niehoff, CEO of NFHS. “We know that some states that were able to complete surveys in 2020-2021 have reported increased participation over the past year. We are therefore very optimistic that this trend will continue in the years to come as schools fully recover from the effects of the 2020 closure.”

Nationally, the NFHS reports that 7,618,054 students are participating in sports ranging from soccer to competitive football and everything in between during the 2021-22 school year. That number was down from 7,937,491 in 2018-19, but still ranks among the highest totals ever recorded by the NFHS. The previous year, in 2017-2018, a record 7,980,886 students participated in sports.

In Pennsylvania, participation rates have remained relatively stable over the past decade, hovering between 315,000 and 320,000 student-athletes. One change is that while 315,097 participants is the lowest statewide number in more than 10 years, Pennsylvania now has the fourth highest number of student-athletes in the nation, behind only Texas, California and Ohio.

Melissa Mertz, assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, said she was surprised to see Pennsylvania down to No. 4. Pennsylvania had placed sixth every year since 2008-09, when it was ranked seventh. Over the past 20 years, voter turnout in the state has grown from 250,000 in 2002-03 to more than 315,000 this year.

“I don’t know what’s going on in those other states, but it was surprising to see that we were fourth,” Mertz said. “We’re starting to see this movement coming out of COVID where kids are coming back to these types of activities.

“Some sports have seen an increase, some have remained at the status quo and some have fallen,” said Midd-West athletic director Bree Solomon. certain sports. It is difficult to understand the exact reasoning.


Of Pennsylvania’s 315,097 student-athletes last year, about 53 percent (166,590) were boys. Nationally, the 2021-22 total is made up of 4,376,582 boys and 3,241,472 girls, according to figures obtained from the 51 member state associations of the NFHS, which includes the District of Columbia.

This year’s survey indicated high school student participation in 69 different sports, as well as 16 adaptive sports and 16 unified sports, according to the NFHS. They range from everything from basketball and soccer to other sports where Mertz said there’s been surprising growth, including bowling.

In terms of schools sponsoring sports nationally, basketball is most popular for both boys and girls, NFHS data shows that over 18,000 schools sponsor men’s basketball and 17,901 schools sponsor women’s basketball. Football has the highest number of male student-athletes nationally with 973,792 participants; Athletics has the most participants with 456,697, just ahead of volleyball.

Statewide, the favorites are the same. Four men’s sports – soccer, baseball, basketball and athletics – all have more than 20,000 participants, with soccer leading the way. Track and field is the most popular women’s sport in Pennsylvania with 24,360 female participants – more than the total for males – while there are more than 21,000 female basketball players.

However, football is perhaps the most important scenario in the boys’ participation totals. While 11-man men’s football was down 3% (1,006,013 to 973,792) – less than the overall survey average of 4% – participation in 6-, 8- and 9-man football recorded a 12% increase.

The slight movement of 11 players to other versions was also seen in school sponsorship. While the number of schools offering 11-player football fell by 514 (from 14,247 to 13,733), the number of schools offering 6-, 8- or 9-player football increased by 227 (from 1,563 to 1,790).

“Certainly the football numbers are encouraging after the previous report for the 2018-19 season,” Niehoff said. “The 11-player move to other versions of the game continues to be attractive to schools in some states, and the growth of women’s flag soccer continues to gain momentum in more and more parts of the country.”

Volleyball continued to grow in popularity among girls and was the only top 10 sport to see an increase from three years ago.


More and more athletes are turning away from playing two or three sports, which could have an impact on participation rates, a trend based on a greater availability to play sports such as basketball, football and field hockey, all year round, plus longer seasons – the PIAA football season can run 16 weeks plus the pre-season.

In the PIAA, Mertz said the organization tries to work its schedules so seasons don’t overlap. While there is some crossover as teams advance deep into the state playoffs, the goal is to ensure student-athletes have the opportunity to compete in multiple sports or take a break between seasons.

“We look at how the seasons overlap; we want kids to be able to participate in multiple sports,” she said. “It’s not happening as much as it used to, but we want to stay aware that one sport doesn’t get in the way of another.”

The growth of indoor facilities and club and travel teams gives athletes greater opportunities to play the same sport all the time, which means athletes can opt for a second or third sport.

“When we were little, you couldn’t play field hockey indoors in the winter, then spring and summer,” Mertz said. “You have practiced another sport. I wish there was more of that. It’s nice to see some of the pro leagues promoting that their athletes grew up playing multiple sports. There’s also the sports medicine part, where someone keeps using the same muscles the same way over and over again. Playing multiple sports can lend itself to fewer injuries.

In Midd-West, Solomon said the school runs camps for elementary students to introduce them to a variety of activities at a young age.

“Most have some type of youth camp, which helps keep kids interested. We have youth parties at university events, they are always very busy,” she said. “Last year, we organized a multi-sport initiation camp for primary school children. They participated in three sports each night to get a feel for what we offer in the Midd-West. There were a lot of people and we had very good feedback.

“Of course it will take a few years to see if it has been effective and to involve the children. We still have quite a few multi-sport athletes, but the number of tri-sport athletes is decreasing.

Educational experience

Both Solomon and Mertz emphasized the importance of not just sports, but all extracurricular activities as a crucial part of the student experience, things that have been lost during COVID.

“Being a product of high school and college athletics, I think all extracurricular activities — music, drama, FFA — are an extremely important part of the school experience,” Solomon said. “It gives students an identity, a purpose and an outlet other than academics. You learn to be a leader, to work with others, to take responsibility, to manage your time, to manage failures and much more. There are a number of kids who need athletics and other extracurricular activities to stay on track, usually with a coach or counselor as a mentor.

” It’s necessary. Kids need the outing,” Mertz said. “Social interaction, physicality, eating well, being with friends, all of that. It kind of hit us in the face with COVID and the kids were really struggling not having that outlet, not have the opportunity to compete.

“It goes with all extracurriculars. They are such an extension of the classroom and such an important part of all the education we receive.