High school sports should be about more than ‘getting kids to the next level’


Updated June 18, 2023 at 8:50 p.m.

Playing sports teaches us some things. Those of us who played growing up know this, or those of you with kids currently competing in youth leagues, can attest to the positives that come from being part of a team.

More often than not at the youth level, playing sports is how kids first learn important life lessons like how to win, how to lose, working with others, setting goals and overcoming adversity. For a long time, the goal for many middle school athletes was to work on their craft and improve enough so that he or she can make a varsity squad once they arrive in high school. From what I can tell, that’s still the goal for most of them.

Over the last 10(ish) years it seems, the function of high school sports programs (especially in the Savannah area) has shifted. High school sports have gone from being a desired destination to becoming just another stop on the path of “getting to the next level.” Earning a scholarship to play college sports is obviously a worthy aspiration for any high school athlete, and I applaud it. Athletes should be trying to get to the next level, on the field and off. Coaches and schools, however, are a different story.

A high school coach (of any sport) should not be focused primarily on getting their players to the college level. If you look around long enough, you’ll start to notice that a lot of coaches are doing just that. One could certainly argue that the hand of the coaches has been forced. If they don’t get kids playing sports in college, they aren’t considered successful by many. It’s a chicken or the egg thing, I guess.

Most high school athletes won’t play college sports. That’s a fact. But the benefits of sports have been proven by study after study.

In 2022, a report by The Aspen Project stated that new research from Old Dominion University found that “children who are physically inactive are twice as likely to experience mental health problems as those who meet weekly recommendations…follow-up research from University College London suggests that these effects carry into adulthood.”

In 2017, a University of Chicago study of students in grades 6-9 showed an obvious correlation between school sports participation and success in life. The study found that “participation (in school sports) was significantly associated with academic achievement, positive body-image perceptions, and self-esteem.”

There is also evidence showing links to better academic performance for high school-aged athletes as opposed to non student-athletes. 

A 2018 study by the Healthy Sports Index concluded that “high school athletes are more likely to expect to graduate from a four-year college (73% females, 59% males) when compared to non-athletes (67% females, 53% males).”

So if sports participation means healthy students, generally, it should worry us if we start to see a decline in the numbers of students choosing to play them in high school.

The Aspen Project’s 2022 “State of Play” reported that “the rate of youth playing travel sports doubled” from the Fall of 2021 to Fall 2022. The same report said that 28% of youth aged 11-18 “showed a lack of interest in playing sports.” That’s the highest figure since the study began in 2013.

And who knows why the kids aren’t playing as much? I don’t know. But I wonder sometimes. If the “travel-ball” rate is doubling at the youth level while the high school sports interest is falling, aren’t we able to learn something from that? Isn’t there a lesson in there somewhere?

I wonder sometimes if we’ve started to squeeze out too many “non-prospect” student-athletes. Without the 0-star players, the 5-star players are left with AAU and 7-on-7 highlight tapes. Trust me, we don’t need to see any more of those things.

It isn’t bad to have student-athletes from Savannah high schools going on to play college sports. It is an undeniable positive. Knowing that, we should be wary of letting it transform from a positive to a priority. That’s when the danger arrives.



The 2023 Men's & Ladies City Amateur Championships will be played on August 26-27 at Bacon Park Golf Course. Registration will open on August 1, 2023.

Savannah’s Junior City Am is set for June 26-27 and registration for that event is already open. To enter the Junior City Am, register in person at the Bacon Park pro shop or online through the Savannah Junior Golf Association at www.SavannahJrGolf.com.


Sign up for the free weekly high school football newsletter, “The Read Option,” for all the latest in the world of Savannah high school football this fall. The Read Option begins in August. Sign up at www.ConnectSavannah.com/Savannah/Newsletters/Page.

Published June 18, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.


Travis Jaudon

Travis Jaudon is a reporter for Connect Savannah. He is a Savannah native and has been writing in Savannah since 2016. Reach him with feedback or story tips at 912-721-4358
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