Background: Sport has been identified as one of the 7 best investments for increasing physical activity levels across the life span. Several questions remain on how to effectively utilize youth sport as a strategy for increasing physical activity and improving health in youth. The purpose of this paper is to identify the main research priorities in the areas of youth sport and physical activity for health. Methods: An international expert panel was convened, selected to cover a wide spectrum of topics related to youth sport. The group developed a draft set of potential research priorities, and relevant research was scoped. Through an iterative process, the group reached consensus on the top 10 research priorities. Results: The 10 research priorities were identified related to sport participation rates, physical activity from sport, the contribution of sport to health, and the overall return on investment from youth sport. For each research priority, the current evidence is summarized, key research gaps are noted, and immediate research needs are suggested. Conclusion: The identified research priorities are intended to guide researchers, policymakers, and practitioners to increase the evidence base on which to base the design, delivery, and policies of youth sport programs to deliver health benefits.

Physical activity is important for children’s physical, mental, and social development.1,2 The Global Matrix report cards show that physical activity levels vary across countries and suggest that, overall, particularly in western countries, physical activity levels are low and physical inactivity is increasing.3 Physical inactivity during childhood not only affects childhood health but also impacts health in adulthood through direct effects and tracking of inactivity behaviors into adulthood.46 Thus, ways to increase physical activity among children around the world are a public health priority.

Interventions to increase physical activity among children have predominantly been implemented in the school setting.7,8 Sport is the most popular type of physical activity among children,3 and youth sport exists in many cultures, in various forms, around the world.9 Sport, however, is not often used as an intervention strategy to increase physical activity. For the purposes of this paper, youth sport is defined as formally arranged sport, governed by rules, and participated in by individuals 18 years or younger and outside of school and physical education time.10 This includes attending practices and games under the supervision of one or more adult, who often assumes the role of team coach.10,11 Importantly, sport involvement includes rules, facilities, equipment, normative beliefs, and policies.12

Sport has been identified as one of the 7 best investments for increasing physical activity levels among all individuals13 and is particularly relevant to children due to existing cultural norms and infrastructure that encourage sport participation among children and adolescents, particularly in developed countries. This appears to be a global phenomenon as, for example, the US National Physical Activity Plan identified sport as one of the 9 sectors for implementing national physical activity guidelines14 and recently released a National Youth Sport Strategy,15 the International Olympic Committee has highlighted the importance of sport in promoting physical activity,16 and Sport New Zealand has focused on achieving well-being outcomes through sport in its National Strategy and 2020–2032 Outcomes Framework.17 Therefore, sport is widely accepted as a potential avenue for promoting physical activity participation and broader social and health outcomes if young people are exposed to high-quality positive sporting experiences that increase the likelihood of continued participation in sport and physical activity. However, several questions remain on how to utilize youth sport most effectively as a strategy for increasing youth physical activity and improving health worldwide, as youth sport, in its current form, may not be enough.

The purpose of this paper is to identify top research priorities in youth sport and physical activity for health. The overall purpose is to guide researchers, policymakers, and practitioners to increase the evidence base on which to base the design, delivery, and policies of youth sport programs that will deliver health benefits.

Methods

An international expert panel (the authors) was convened following the 2016 International Society for Physical Activity and Health Congress in Bangkok, Thailand. The panel was selected to cover a wide range of topics related to youth sport, including youth sport specifically, children’s physical activity more broadly, measurement of physical activity, and policy. Based on their knowledge and experience, the group developed a conceptual framework of the contribution of youth sport to health (see Figure 1) and collectively drafted a set of potential research priorities. Individuals were assigned to each priority area based on their expertise to scope relevant literature, which was presented back to the group. The evidence was discussed as a team, with additional research areas being added and scoped as necessary, to further refine and reach consensus on the 10 greatest priorities, which are presented in this paper. For each research priority, the state of the evidence is summarized, key research gaps are noted, and immediate research needs are suggested.

Figure 1
Figure 1

—A conceptual framework of the contribution of youth sport to health.

Citation: Journal of Physical Activity and Health 17, 9; 10.1123/jpah.2020-0151

Research Priorities

Research Priority 1: What is the Participation Rate in Youth Sport?

Participating in sport is the first step to ensuring children benefit from sport. Youth sport participation rates are assessed in many countries as part of existing large-scale surveys and are included in the Global Matrix as a key indicator of youth physical activity.3,18,19 In the 2018 Global Matrix report cards, grades for organized youth sport ranged from high, with Denmark receiving an A− (with approximately 83% of 7- to 15-y-olds reporting regularly participating in sport20), to low, with Lebanon and Uruguay receiving F’s (less than 20% participating), and several countries reporting incomplete information and unable to assign a grade.19 However, these metrics are based on different population surveys and questions making cross-country comparisons difficult.

Importantly, many of these statistics are based on single- or limited-item questions, for example, the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System multiple-choice question in the United States asks, “During the past 12 months, on how many sports teams did you play? (count any teams run by your school or community groups).” This question gives little information on the amount (duration and frequency) of participation or the level of involvement. Additionally, there are inconsistent definitions of youth sport that lead to varying participation estimates, such as not distinguishing between sport outside of school or sport that occurs during school or inconsistencies in including other activities, such as dance. Furthermore, even less evidence exists on youth participation in nontraditional sports such as mountain biking, ultimate Frisbee, or competitive resistance training sports, such as CrossFit, which are growing in popularity and may represent novel sporting opportunities to engage previously unengaged youth. To accurately understand participation in sport and the dose of exposure, more specific information about frequency, duration, intensity, type of competition (ie, recreational or elite sports league), type of sport, and ultimately the quality of the sport participation are needed.

In addition to overall rates of participation, it is important to understand who is participating and, importantly, who is not participating. Minimal information is available on how sport participation varies by gender, ethnicity, rural versus urban settings, and socioeconomic status. Furthermore, little information is available on children with disabilities, including how often they participate, in which sport, and who is not participating and why.21 This information is critical to help identify target groups that may need additional support to increase participation. Standardized measures are needed to regularly assess youth sport participation rates regionally, nationally, and internationally to capture which sport children are participating in and how much, as well as who is participating and who is not. Ideally, these measures will also provide an indication of how much sport participation contributes to total physical activity levels so that we can understand how this varies in different population groups and changes across the lifespan (see “Research Priority 4” section).

Research Priority 2: How Can We Best Improve Sport Participation Rates?

Sport is one of the most popular forms of physical activity among children,9 with participation rates typically increasing during childhood, for example, see Australian Sports Commission Study.22 While there is a growing amount of literature on why children join sport,23 research on how to utilize these reasons to encourage and increase participation is limited. Capacity building, through the development of knowledge, skills, infrastructure, and systems, is one strategy that has been used to increase sport participation successfully in adults in marginalized communities.24 In youth sport, building capacity could include improving the knowledge and skills of coaches and recreation practitioners; providing infrastructure, such as fields, equipment, and sporting leagues; and strengthening partnerships between youth sport organizations and government and other health-promoting organizations.

Although many children are enrolled in sport at a young age,3,18,19 it is unknown whether there is a “critical age” by which children need to start participating in sport or if they may join at any point. Some longitudinal research suggests that there may be gender differences in the probability of joining sport, with boys more likely to join at a later age.25 Therefore, efforts to get children to join sport should not only just be targeted at young children but also include adolescents who have not participated in sport or are trying a new sport.

For young children, initial participation may be instigated by their parents. While the role of family is speculated to play a large role in sport participation,26 more research is necessary on its specific involvement and how to engage family to promote sport in a positive way. One strategy may be encouraging parents to increase their levels of physical activity.27 Some children may need additional encouragement to participate in sport (as identified in Research Priority 1). Overall, boys have higher sport participation rates than girls and men are more physically active than women worldwide.28 Populations least likely to participate may be from lower socioeconomic groups that do not have the means to pay fees for participation, children in rural areas where distance and transportation are large considerations,29 children with disabilities who do not have access to ability-appropriate sporting opportunities,30 or other minority groups, such as culturally and linguistically diverse populations and those who identify as LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer [or questioning], and others). Strategies need to be tested to overcome barriers and perceived barriers, as parent perception of these barriers may be more critical to participation than reality. Identified barriers should be targeted in youth sport policy and programming. Furthermore, for some children or adolescents where youth sport may be more negative than beneficial due to individual health concerns or negative social interactions, alternative physical activities should be explored.

Research Priority 3: How Can We Maintain Sport Participation?

Once a child is participating in sport, they must maintain participation to continue to receive benefits. However, participation rates decline steadily throughout adolescence,22 and there is evidence that children begin dropping out of sport and decreasing physical activity from as young as 8 years of age.25,31 While it is unclear what the exact rate of dropout from organized youth sport is, best estimates place it at around 30% of all participants each year.32

Two systematic reviews have concluded that there are a range of established intrapersonal, interpersonal, and environmental factors that predict dropout from organized sport.32,33 These contributing factors include individual factors, such as motor skills development; mental skills, such as mental toughness and grit; social climate from coaches, parents, and peers26; organizational factors, such as league scheduling, cost, and competition; and policy factors, addressed in later priorities. The reasons are likely to be different for girls and boys, particularly as they get older, physical, and social development influences sporting decisions.34 Given that there is now sufficient information on the reasons for, and influences on, dropout from organized sport, a solution-oriented approach is needed.35 Solution-oriented research is forward-looking, experimental in nature, and capable of informing and changing policy and practice. This information on factors that influence participation needs to be used to identify groups that may be at high risk of dropping out and manipulating some of these factors to reduce dropout. Developmental models of sport participation and several position statements recommend that children participate in a number of sports3638; however, there have been continued trends toward early sport specialization.39 Sampling a range of sports in childhood has been associated with higher physical activity during adolescence,40 and evidence does not support sport specialization increasing performance and sporting success.41 In addition, children who specialize in a single sport early may be at an increased risk for a number of predictors of dropout from organized sport, including injury, social isolation, and burnout.4245 The reduction in rates of sport specialization and parallel efforts to minimize and prevent injury and burnout among organized youth sport participants are likely to be meaningful strategies in the reduction of dropout from organized sport. Research on early specialization, with long-term follow-up of youth from a developmental perspective, is needed to identify potential risks.

Finally, it should be noted that there are circumstances where it is entirely appropriate for children or adolescents to cease participation in a sport, including burnout, injury, or lack of enjoyment. However, given the health and well-being detriments associated with dropout from all sports,46,47 maintenance of participation via transfer to an alternate level of competition or alternate sport may be beneficial. Little is known about the benefits or correlates of sport transfer, or the switching between sports—in contrast to dropout. With the emergence of sports such as skateboarding and mountain biking, there are alternatives for children who do not enjoy traditional team and individual sport. It is also important to identify these children to improve their current sporting participation or help them find an alternative sporting environment that they can continue in.

Research Priority 4: How Much Physical Activity Does Sport Provide Participating Youth?

Sport (including dance) may represent one of the widest reaching out-of-school settings for physical activity. In many countries around the world, the majority of youth participate in at least one sport annually,9 which could have substantial public health implications as youth sport participation has been associated with an increased likelihood of meeting national physical activity guidelines.4850 Still, the actual contribution of sport to children’s and adolescents’ total physical activity is still unclear. For instance, one study found that youth sport contributed 26 minutes of participants’ total moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) for that day,51 whereas another found that youths participating in sport accumulated 7 minutes per day of MVPA more than youths who did not participate in sport (with ∼5 additional minutes per day of MVPA for each additional sport they participated in).52 These figures are likely to vary by measurement protocols (eg, accelerometer cut-points, self-report tool used), sports, cultures, and population socioeconomics. It is also possible that increasing physical activity through sport may displace other physical activity, though limited experimental research does not support this.53 It is, therefore, critical to better understand the contribution of sport to overall physical activity.

While it is encouraging that many youths have access to sport and sport participation increases the likelihood of being sufficiently active, it appears that there is still room for improving physical activity in youth sport. Observational studies have consistently shown that despite being in a sporting context, youth sport participants spend the majority of time inactive or in light-intensity physical activity, regardless of setting context (eg, practices, games), sport, and sex.51,5459 One of the primary factors influencing the quality of physical activity participation in sporting contexts is the coach. Accordingly, there have been calls to investigate and improve the current quality of coaching youth sport and particularly to determine efficient ways of optimizing the dose of physical activity accumulated during youth sport.57,60,61 Other contextual factors that may influence physical activity during sport may be the physical environment, peer interactions (ie, age-groupings and variations in skill level), or rules of the game (ie, modifications on player positioning and playing time). Therefore, studies using nuanced observation systems to capture these contextual data are needed. Furthermore, for some sports, these data can then be paired with accelerometry and other data collection tools that use novel sensory technology to assess patterns of variability during particular time segments. Few studies to date have provided these contextual data in youth sport.54,6265 Only 2 of these studies paired contextual data with accelerometry to assess patterns of variability.62,63 Findings showed that physical activity and inactivity were highly variable throughout the sporting event and differed by task (eg, warm-up, game play, management) and setting demand (ie, whether the practice setting fostered participation or exclusion).62 This contextual information can be used to inform interventions aiming to increase activity in youth sport; therefore, a more nuanced examination of the structure and characteristics of youth sport settings is warranted.

Research Priority 5: How Can We Develop Effective and Sustainable Coaching Interventions to Improve Physical Activity in Sport?

Coaches are in an ideal position to impact the health and well-being of youth sport participants, as they are viewed as experts, have regular direct involvement, and carry considerable influence over participants and the environment.66,67 Coaches are key figures in the youth sport setting and play an important role in ensuring that youth have high-quality sporting experiences.68 Unfortunately, not all youth have positive experiences and their coach is one of the most commonly cited reasons for dropping out of sport.69

Many youth sport organizations do not require coaches to receive any formal coaching qualifications.61 Furthermore, the coach training programs (or accreditation courses) that are available generally do not provide coaches with direction on how to create structured environments that promote physical activity.61 Schlechter et al55 found no difference in the percentage of time youth playing American flag football spent in MVPA between coaches who completed a standard coach training program compared with those with no training. One of the factors contributing to high percentages of inactivity and light-intensity activity may be that coaches spend little time preparing for practices, relying on their experience in the sport to create impromptu practices.70 While sport can include some beneficial activities of lower intensity, such as motor skill development, team strategizing, and intentional observation, coaches have been observed spending a considerable percentage of practice time in less effective management activities (eg, setting up drills, transitioning between drills, instructions).54 This lack of appropriate training and planning negatively affects physical activity intensity, where MVPA is often lower when coaches are disengaged in a management context.64,65

Even when the coach is not specifically cited as the reason for youth dropout, the reasons given are generally factors coaches control or affect, and thus can improve. For instance, lack of excitement and fun, boredom, and not enough participation were some of the most common reasons for withdrawing from sport in a study of over 500 youth athletes.71 As we know, coaches spend a considerable percentage of practice time in management 54 and youth MVPA is lower during this time,64,65 it is possible that poor management practices contribute to youth dropout from sport.

Research is needed to create and evaluate coaches’ training programs aimed at improving the quality of youth sport coaching. We are aware of only one experimental study that investigated the efficacy of coach training on youth physical activity intensity in a small convenience sample during sport practice.72 This study showed that brief coach training can significantly increase MVPA and decrease inactivity. Additionally, after coaches were trained to implement efficient activity-promoting practices, attenuated differences in MVPA between youth with high and low self-determined motivation were found.73 However, this intervention was short in duration (1 wk), highly controlled, and only focused on increasing physical activity by modifying the structure of practices. Therefore, longer, fully powered effectiveness trials of interventions that are scalable are needed. In addition to increasing physical activity by modifying the physical environment, future coach training programs could also incorporate psychosocial (eg, motivational climate, coach–athlete relationships) or developmental (eg, interpersonal development, fundamental movement skills, physical literacy) elements. Future interventions may also explore alternate training methods (eg, online modules), incorporate parents or families, maintain sport between sport seasons, and aim to influence physical activity outside of the youth sport environment.

As discussed in the previous section, there is a dearth of interventions aiming to increase physical activity during youth sport. While promising, the long-term effectiveness of training coaches to implement activity-promoting practices is currently unknown and warrants further investigation. However, interventions with long follow-ups in youth sport are difficult because sport seasons are generally short, and there is high turnover among coaches and athletes. Future interventions can continue to deliver interventions to coaches but should conduct analyses at a higher level (ie, organization or club level). Therefore, organizational, club, or perhaps governmental buy-in is needed for interventions to be sustainable and to assess long-term effectiveness.

Research Priority 6: What Policy-Level Actions on Youth Sport Are Most Effective at Increasing Physical Activity?

To achieve the required reach and scale of change in physical activity to benefit population health, policy-level interventions are needed.74 Several international and national documents and initiatives highlight the roles of policy in promoting physical activity and the importance of sport policy within that. For example, the World Health Organization’s Global Action Plan on Physical Activity highlights policy actions across 4 objective areas that engage and utilize sporting structures.75 In the United States, the National Physical Activity Plan has 8 strategies with detailed tactics on how to use sport to promote physical activity14 and has recently released a National Youth Sport Strategy15; several of these strategies and tactics address policy-level actions.14 The International Society for Physical Activity and Health’s Bangkok Declaration highlights sport policy actions to support the Sustainable Development Goals.76 While there is recognition of the potential role of sport in shifting population levels of physical activity, the most effective strategies for increasing physical activity within this sector remain unclear, and past efforts have been mostly unsuccessful.77

While tools exist to evaluate physical activity policies,78 there is a need for long-term evaluations following sport-related policy changes with appropriate comparison groups to determine long-term effectiveness. These can include natural experiments with matched control communities. Evaluations of the effectiveness of policies should include cost-effectiveness analyses by examining the return on investment for policy implementation. Cost-benefit analyses should examine how a policy that increases sport participation increases physical activity and decreases overall health care costs, in addition to other benefits to society. While policy change can often be slow, research including a series of systematic reviews and modeling scenarios to inform the development of a league table of the most effective and cost-effective policy level actions on youth sport could help to enhance sport policies.

Research Priority 7: How Does Youth Sport Contribute to Physical Health?

Youth sport is a key opportunity for physical activity, and the physical benefits of physical activity are well documented.7981 As discussed in Research Priority 4, the total amount of physical activity during sport needs to be assessed using direct observation or objectively measured by devices. Sport, however, unique from other forms of physical activity, may provide additional benefits, such as improved motor skills and multiple fitness components, for example, muscular strength, endurance, flexibility, cardiorespiratory fitness, and body composition. Sport participation, likely due to its physical activity with high-intensity intervals, has been linked to decreased risk of obesity82 and other chronic diseases.83,84

While cross-sectional studies provide evidence that participation in youth sport is associated with improved physical health and fitness,48,85 there are few experimental studies showing that joining sport increases physical health. A feasibility study randomized low-income, overweight children to a soccer program and found improvements in body composition after 3 months.86 However, in typical sport settings, it is likely that children who have greater physical health and fitness are more likely to participate, limiting any causal inferences. It is unknown if joining sport, in its current form, is sufficient to improve physical health and which sport in which settings improve which physical health outcomes. While some evidence suggests answers to these questions,86 such as reducing obesity, longitudinal studies that assess the impact on overall physical health over time are needed to understand how the effects of youth sport may translate into adulthood. Well-designed experimental studies are needed to assess the physical effects of youth sport participation, and particularly how individuals with lower fitness may benefit from joining and maintaining participation in appropriate sporting opportunities.

Research Priority 8: How Does Youth Sport Contribute to Mental Health?

Youth sport participation has been associated with improved mental health outcomes, including reduced mental ill-being (eg, anxiety and depression) and increased mental well-being (eg, happiness).8789 In addition, sport and physical activity have been positively associated with educational outcomes, including improved cognitive performance and academic achievement.90 Some of these benefits may directly be the result of the neurobiological effects of physical activity. More research is needed on the specifics of these mechanisms; however, they may include acute and chronic neuroelectric effects,91 brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or cerebral blood flow mechanisms.90,92 It is likely, however, that youth sport has an effect on mental health outcomes independent of physical activity. Improved mental ill-being and well-being may be mediated through psychosocial mechanisms that result from positive social interactions, outdoor activity, or feelings of accomplishment.92,93 There may also be behavioral mechanisms linked to improved auto-regulation or sleep patterns for those engaged regularly in sport that positively influence mental health.94 Similarly, improved cognitive performance may be a result of complex problem solving and spatial reasoning needed during sport performance.

Most of the evidence to support the relationship between physical activity and mental health is either from tightly controlled laboratory experiments or cross-sectional data.90,94 Broader effectiveness studies in real-world settings are indicated. These studies also need to explore how sport is only part of the broader social phenomenon that surrounds it when delivered as a mental health intervention.95 Specifically, there may also be negative effects of sport on mental health, including eating disorders, increased anxiety, or decreased self-esteem, particularly in low-quality sporting experiences.96 It is likely that these mediators are variable between individuals, sport, and sporting experiences.12 Consequently, it may not be the traditional components of physical activity dosage that are critical for achieving mental health outcomes through sport.97 For example, it may be that sport that is light intensity and is performed in a social and fun context for a short duration is effective at changing mental health outcomes, despite having minimal impact on physical health. Well-designed, ecologically valid experiments are needed to provide causal evidence on the benefits of sport on mental health. Additionally, more research is needed on the mediators of these positive mental health benefits so that these factors can be maximized during youth sport. Furthermore, longitudinal studies are needed to determine how these changes in mental health may be sustained or dissipate.

Research Priority 9: How Does Sport Contribute to Social Health?

There are several other developmental benefits of youth sport participation, including the social benefits of youth sport. Social identity is likely to contribute to positive youth development.98 Sport has been identified as a way to encourage and promote positive youth development.99 Youth sport participation has also been shown to promote indicators of success, such as reduced school dropout, juvenile detention, and crime rates.100 Youth sport may also directly affect social capital through teamwork and social training. For example, children and adolescents involved in youth sport may develop critical “21st-century skills” that increase their employability, such as communication and cooperation. High-quality youth sport experience will likely teach good social skills like other quality after-school programs.101 For youth who have immigrated or are from international backgrounds, sport may also help with integration and acculturation.102

Youth sport also creates a setting for interactions with peers and family. Friends were consistently reported as a predominant reason given by children and adolescents for participating in sport, and good teammates are critical to a positive sport experience.27 Siblings and parents may encourage participation27 but are also involved in the entire sporting experience, such as attending games, helping with skill practice, and providing transportation. Strategies to encourage and maximize these positive social experiences need to be explored.

Through its inherent social interactions, sport can be used as a vehicle for positive change, in addition to health promotion.103 One sporting opportunity that has been used to effect change in more than traditional physical health outcomes is Sport for Development.104 However, many of these programs have been implemented by health and nonprofit agencies without rigorous evaluation of effectiveness, and evaluation has found mixed results on diverse outcomes.95,105 Researchers can capitalize on the natural experiment opportunities that arise from implementation of these programs as well as collaborating with existing sport for development programs to strengthen implementation and evaluation design.106

Research Priority 10: What is the Overall Return on Investment for Youth Sport Participation?

As highlighted, there are physical, mental, and social health benefits of sport participation. However, the benefits of positive sporting environments extend to economic and social benefits. With limited resources, governments and agencies need to understand the relative return on their investments, including the contribution of sport. Understanding the overall contribution of youth sport to society may make decisions about resource allocation and sport-related policies more obvious. It is impossible to capture all the benefits of youth sport. From a socioecological perspective, studies on the benefits of youth sport typically focus on individual and interpersonal benefits for the participating youth. However, expanding the research lens to macro levels of communities, policies, and environments may yield some unexpected outcomes from youth sport. Some novel areas of research on outcomes can be applied to youth sport from other disciplines. For example, one such area of exploration is the economic benefits of youth sport. In the United States, it is estimated that youth sport is a $15 billion industry.107 This includes revenue from participation, tourism, and advertising. Advertising through youth sporting events has been controversial, but sports marketing has rarely been evaluated, either at the grassroots or the national level.108 Organizations and investors will want to know the overall return on investment in youth sport, including quantification of the benefits of advertising. Thus, social return on investment analyses should consider these macro-level effects on community economies and environments through partnerships with sustainability organizations that already exist. A series of different methods to assess social return on investment have been trialed in various countries.109 The variation in the results of these analyses is thought to largely reflect the diversity of the methods used rather than large differences in the value of sport across countries. Further research is indicated to refine these methods and apply them to various sporting interventions, which include strategies to directly influence the knowledge, skills, and motivation of sport participants as well as more indirect interventions like the creation or renovation of sporting facilities.

Conclusion

Researchers in physical activity and health, exercise science, sociology, youth development, and other disciplines should work collaboratively to answer the youth sport research questions highlighted in this paper and summarized in Table 1. Specific actions by collaborative stakeholders to support the research questions and priorities in Table 1 could include better alignment of comprehensive surveillance across countries; robust evaluations of all sport initiatives; a shift in the focus of evaluation toward understanding the effects of participation on physical, mental, and social health outcomes; and the integration of health economics into the evaluation of sport initiatives to enhance understanding of their cost-effectiveness. Investments are needed in initiatives to engage specific population groups, such as girls and minority groups. Investments are also needed in capacity building to increase knowledge and skills among coaches. Specific activities for the research community that may support this interdisciplinary research include data sharing, conference symposia calls, special issues in journals, and funding opportunities that address youth sport topics. A truly convergent research approach, involving international stakeholders, is needed to tackle the issue of youth sport participation. Better understanding of these research priorities will assist in gaining funding agencies’ and stakeholders’ recognition of the potential for youth sport to contribute to youth health and development, which will lead to improved practice and, in turn, better health outcomes for youth worldwide.

Table 1

Suggestions for Future Research Directions

Research questionResearch priority
1. What is the participation rate in youth sport?Research using standardized and more in-depth assessment of sport participation, including the frequency, duration, intensity, and type of sport participation, are needed, and these should include special populations and alternative sports
2. How can we best improve sport participation rates?Research on the barriers to participation and strategies to overcome these barriers, particularly among underserved populations (ie, girls, low socioeconomic status families, rural areas, and other minority populations)
3. How can we maintain sport participation?Research using a solutions-oriented approach to prevent dropout from sport

Research on multilevel factors and strategies to target these factors

Research with a developmental focus on sport specialization and strategies for sport transfer
4. How much physical activity does sport provide participating youth?Research on the examination of sporting structure context and its influence on physical activity, including using devices like accelerometers and contextual data
5. How can we develop effective and sustainable coaching interventions to improve physical activity in sport?Research using longer, fully powered effectiveness trials that are scalable are needed on effective training and planning for coaches
6. What policy-level actions on youth sport are most effective at increasing physical activity?Research to determine the most effective policy actions to improve youth sport
7. How does youth sport contribute to physical health?Well-designed experimental studies are needed to assess the physical effects of youth sport participation, particularly how individuals with lower fitness may benefit from joining appropriate sporting opportunities
8. How does youth sport contribute to mental health?Research supporting causal evidence on the benefits of sport on mental health

Research examining mediators of these positive mental health benefits so that these factors can be maximized during youth sport
9. How does sport contribute to social health?Research testing strategies to maximize positive social experiences

Research on the implementation and evaluation of benefits of sport for development
10. What is the overall return on investment for youth sport participation?Analyses considering macro-level effects on community economies and environments through partnerships with sustainability organizations

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If the inline PDF is not rendering correctly, you can download the PDF file here.

Howie is with the Department of Health, Human Performance and Recreation, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR, USA. Guagliano is with the University of Cambridge, Cambridge, England, United Kingdom. Milton is with the University of East Anglia, Norwich, United Kingdom. Vella is with the University of Wollongong, Wollongong, NSW, Australia. Gomersall is with the University of Queensland, Brisbane, QLD, Australia. Kolbe-Alexander is with the University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba, QLD, Australia. Richards is with Victoria University Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand; Sport New Zealand, Wellington, New Zealand; and the University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW, Australia. Pate is with the University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC, USA.

Howie (ekhowie@uark.edu) is corresponding author.
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