We know that sports offer a wide variety of benefits to the kids who play them. Kids can gain better physical health and develop academic, social and other skills and more. Those benefits must be weighed against injury concerns. So which sport is best? A new tool, the Healthy Sport Index, tries to offer guidance to parents of young athletes. I discuss it in my latest newspaper column.

At least once a week in my practice, a concerned parent will ask me what I think the best and safest sport is for their child to play. I always respond that there isn’t an answer that’s the same for everyone. It depends on what you’re looking for.

Experts develop the Healthy Sport Index

Experts at the Hospital for Special Surgery and the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, in collaboration with an advisory group of medical doctors, researchers and other specialists, aims to help parents with such an answer based on the parents’ own preferences. The online tool, called the Healthy Sport Index, can help parents choose a sport among 10 sports ranked by the Index that balances the positive aspects of sports with its inherent injury risk.

The Healthy Sport Index ranks cheerleading tenth out of ten for girls sports.

10 boys’ and girls’ sports ranked by the Healthy Sport Index

The ten girls’ sports ranked by the Healthy Sport Index are basketball, cheerleading, cross country, lacrosse, soccer, softball, swimming, tennis, track and field, and volleyball. For the boys, it’s baseball, basketball, cross country, football, lacrosse, soccer, swimming, tennis, track and field, and wrestling.

Three health areas that comprise the Healthy Sport Index

The three areas of health analyzed by the Healthy Sport Index are physical activity, namely how much the athletes move in that sport; safety, or how prevalent injuries are; and psychosocial, incorporating factors like social skills, cognitive skills, initiative, goal setting, academic achievement and substance abuse. Within each domain, 75% of the score consists of scientific data on that sport, and 25% comes from expert opinion.

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How to use the Healthy Sport Index

Parents who want to use this online tool, found at healthysportindex.com, can set their preferences in each category using a slider. The rankings for each sport change based on those preferences.

It’s important to note that just because a sport ranks poorly compared to others on this list, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad choice. One sport can differ greatly depending on the league or school. Plus, a poor ranking doesn’t mean that a child shouldn’t play it. Playing any sport is probably better than not playing a sport at all.

Companion sports based on health and skill development

The Healthy Sport Index also offers recommended companion sports for all of the sports based on health and development of skills. Interestingly, for the 20 boys’ and girls’ sports, basketball was recommended as the best companion sport for seven of them.

Overall rankings for the 20 sports

The Index also offers overall rankings for each sport if all three health areas are weighed equally. The best sports are cross country for boys and swimming for girls. Football ranked last overall for boys, and cheerleading did so for girls.

Football offers psychosocial benefits, according to the Healthy Sport Index, but some concerns as well.

Concerns for football players and athletes of other contact sports

Football actually ranked second for psychosocial benefits, but that score is negated by the sport ranking eighth for physical activity and tenth for safety. Still, football’s perceived benefits in terms of psychological and social development might explain why so many kids and parents choose football despite increasing attention on concussions and other injuries in the sport.

According to data on the Index’s website, young athletes who play contact sports are more likely than other athletes to engage in risky off-the-field behavior. Lacrosse, wrestling and football had the highest rates of binge drinkers, smokers, marijuana users, students cutting class and had among the worst scores for students receiving A or A- grades and expecting to graduate from a four-year-college.

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A worthwhile tool to try

The Healthy Sport Index is a useful tool, and I encourage parents of kids starting to play sports to try it and see how their health and safety preferences should influence their decisions. As Dr. Neeru Jayanthi, director of sports medicine research at Emory University and expert involved in creating this tool, explains, “We talk a lot about injuries in youth sports, for good reason. But it’s important to look at all aspects of the athletic experience. If you just focus on one, you’re missing the boat.”

Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the October 25, 2018 issue of The Post and Courier.

The Healthy Sport Index. healthysportindex.com

This New Tool Can Help Parents Find the Best Sport for Their Kids. By Sean Gregory. Time. October 12, 2018.