High school athletes are hailed “hometown heroes” in Small Town USA, inspiring feel-good flicks like Remember the Titans, Friday Night Lights, and the box office hit — The Blindside.
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But not all high school athletes become future Heisman winners or qualify for Wimbledon. Nor will they all earn spots on NBA rosters or represent the U.S. at the Olympic Games.
Check out these 10+ mind-blowing statistics about real-life high school student-athletes.
Student-Athletes in Recreational Sports
- More than half (57%) of U.S. high school students participated in sports in the last year.
- The number of current high school athletes in America stood at eight million in 2020.
What Are the Most Popular Sports In High School?
In ’18–’19, the NFHS put the exact number of high school athletes at 7,937,491, up 309,114 from the ’09–’10 school year. These are the ten high school sports with the most competitors:
The top five sports for both genders remained the same between ‘19 and ‘10, with the only difference being a swap between girls’ soccer and fast-pitch softball (at #4 and #5).
The Top Reasons Student-Athletes Play Sports
According to the Aspen Institute, the typical American child will never set foot on a high school court, field, or track. In fact, the average age to quit all sports is 10 ½ years old (or fifth grade).
But what inspires the rest to continue playing through high school? A survey by Project Play revealed these as the top sparks fueling that fire:
- Having fun (81%)
- An enjoyment of exercise (79%)
- Learning & improving skills (66%)
- Spending time with friends, new & old (64%)
- The sense of competition (59%)
- A desire to win (53%)
- Emotional & mental health (49%)
Of course, there’s also a hidden dark side to high school athletics.
Some high-schoolers become three-sport athletes to “escape” rough home lives. Others have family legacies to “live up to,” coming from a long line of state champions and team captains.
Or, without a full-ride athletic scholarship, they might be among the 83% of students who simply can’t afford to attend college.
High School Athletes in Competitive Sports and NCAA
- Nearly half a million athletes (480,000+) competed in the NCAA in 2020.
- Each year, 54,000 student-athletes participate in one of the NCAA’s 89 national championships.
- U.S. athletes have better odds of earning a roster spot in classic “American” sports with low international competition, like baseball and football.
- International students fill 60% of the NCAA Division 1 roster for more globally popular sports like tennis.
- Of the NCAA’s 3,669 women’s basketball players, the WNBA drafted just 31.
A High Schooler’s Odds of Playing In the NCAA
Nearly 70% of high school graduates will attend college next fall. But, of the almost eight million student-athletes in high school, just about 6% will earn a spot on a college roster.
Those who do advance to the NCAA level aren’t destined for a leading Division 1 school like Duke, Notre Dame, or Villanova either.
Here’s a look at how likely a high school athlete is to become an NCAA athlete in each division:
Some Sports Have Have Greater Chances
Whether it’s smaller rosters, fewer teams, overcoming athletic injuries, or more international competition, the odds of playing sports in college can be even lower than 6% — depending largely on the sport:
NCAA to Pro: What Are the Chances?
Twenty-three percent of children dreamed of becoming professional athletes in a 2019 LEGO poll. But if you thought the odds of playing college ball were bleak …
Compared to the one million football players on the American high school gridiron, 93,442 play in college, and just 1,645 wear an NFL jersey — for slim 554:1 odds of going pro.
High school football stars are more likely to play for the NFL than their peers are to be drafted by the NBA (1,921:1), MLB (829:1), MLS (1,344:1), WNBA (3,086:1), or NWSL (1,435:1).
Student-Athletes Do Better in High School
- Seven in ten high school athletes owed their time management skills and motivation to attend school to sports.
- Teen student-athletes are more likely to graduate and with better grades than their non-athlete classmates.
Why High School Athletes Perform Better In the Classroom
(Disclaimer: Varsity athletes aren’t necessarily Mensa-level geniuses. But, at least we can retire the idea that all athletes are “dumb jocks” and one concussion away from total brain mush.)
Standout athletes are more likely to graduate and earn higher grades because:
The “Student” Part Comes First
Being a member of a high school sports team is a privilege, not a right. Most U.S. school districts require student-athletes to earn a certain number of credits per quarter, attend 90% of school days, and avoid disciplinary action … or else they’ll forfeit their spot on the roster.
Becoming a better athlete requires practice, a willingness to learn, and grit. This self-discipline carries over from the hardwood or turf to the classroom, with athletes learning to hold themselves accountable for their education, ask for help, and go the extra mile while studying.
Plus student-athletes tend to have healthier eating habits and consume less fast food keeping them more alert and attentive during lectures and exams.
Athletes master the skill of adapting to their environment early on in their careers (i.e., reading a lineman’s body language or dribbling up the left sideline). Whether it’s a pop quiz, group project, or mid-terms, high school athletes manage their time well and know how to meet expectations.
Student-Athletes Are More Successful After High School
- Elite and varsity-level high school athletes have better odds of — attending college, securing full-time employment, and earning a higher income.
- Nearly eight million (7.6 million) U.S. students participate in interscholastic sports.
Athletics Can Open the Door to New Opportunities
Division 1 and 2 schools award nearly $4 billion in athletic scholarships each year, with 2% of high school athletes receiving some type of financial support from their university.
Nine in ten D1 athletes leave college with a degree as D2 and D3 trail closely behind.
Even if they aren’t the next Tom Brady or Kevin Durant, they still have a four-year degree from a reputable school in a job market where 24% of jobs require a Bachelor’s degree.
The average Bachelor’s degree-holder pulls in $1,173/week — or $461 more per week and $23,972 more per year than those with a high school diploma.
Excelling on the turf, track, or hardwood as a teen could very well set you up for comfortable adult life. If the cost of tuition is out of your grasp, athletics could swing that door right open.
Then again, if you’re a slacker and expect opportunities to fall in your lap, good luck!
It’s All In the Personality Traits
Warming the bench on the junior varsity soccer field or joining the bowling team to fluff your resume won’t do much for your career outlook. Nor will simply be good at sports.
That’s because — according to research published in 2015 — it’s not the athleticism that leads to long-term success; it’s the personality traits of athletes.
In this two-part study, researchers surveyed participants’ beliefs about varsity athletes and also polled 931 World War II veterans who represented their high schools on the athletic field.
Both sides of the study confirmed the same results: high school athletes were more likely to be skilled leaders, self-confident, charitable, and have high levels of self-respect in adulthood.
These traits alone make former athletes more employable, especially in management positions.
What Percent Of Students Are Athletes in High School?
57.4% of American students were athletes in high school between 1991 and 2019. However, athletic participation fluctuates during the four years of high school. Research shows it peaks in ninth grade (61.9%) and drops to just below half by senior year (49.8%).
How Many Student-Athletes Are There in High School?
There were 7,937,491 student-athletes in high school in 2018–19. Participation has nearly doubled since 1971–72’s numbers (3,960,932). We crossed the four-million mark that next year, five million the year after that, six million in 1995–96, and seven million in 2004–05.
There’s nothing more American than a Friday night championship football game under the lights at a stadium roaring for the underdog.
Youth sports teach us to become self-reliant, open the door to long-term success, and build skills that we’ll use in adulthood. Yet, being an athlete isn’t everything; it can’t be.
However, while you’ll eventually have to come to grips with being a “retired athlete,” that doesn’t mean sports need to stay in your rearview.
Local rec leagues and pick-up games are a great way to stay active and relive the glory days.