I loved playing sports as a kid. I learned about hard work, teamwork, accountability, patience, dealing with failure, and developed life-long friendships with teammates and coaches. Research shows that “kids who play sports are less likely to be obese, more likely to stay in school, more likely to go to college, less likely to suffer chronic diseases, and more likely to be active as parents.” 1 So why aren’t more kids playing? Here are five huge problems with youth sports in the US today.
#5: Kids Are Quitting Too Soon
Research shows that 50% of kids quit youth sports by age 11 and that 70% quit by age 13. A more recent study showed that that 76% of kids do not regularly participate a high calorie burning sports 2 . That’s nearly 80% of our kids missing out on the incredible benefits of youth sports. What a tragedy. Kids are quitting at a time in their lives when there is so much that youth sports can do for them and before they even have time to physically develop and reach their potential. Unfortunately, according to the kids, youth sports in their current state, just don’t have enough to offer.
#4: Early Specialization Pressure
With youth national championships, the creation of regional super teams, and year-round training facilities, many parents feel immense pressure to encourage their child to specialize in a single sport as young as age 6. It’s no wonder kids are quitting at age 13. At that point, they’ve already been at it 12 months a year, 6 days a week, for 7 years straight. The National Athletic Trainers Association recently released an official statement recommending that children delay specializing in a sport as long as possible. They specifically state that the physical demands of specialization, the pressure to perform, and lack of rest put these young athletes at a higher risk for injury, burnout, and dropping out of sports all together 3 .
#3: It’s Too Expensive
While some sports are still relatively affordable for many kids to play, many of the most popular sports are becoming more expensive. A recent study showed that the average family pays around $2,300/yr. for their children to participate in sports. Some of the fastest growing sports like lacrosse and ice hockey had an average cost of over $7,000 with some parents paying as much as $20,000/yr 4 . As the cost of playing youth sports continues to rise, many children and families are being priced-out of the game. In families that make over $100k/yr., 68.4% of kids are playing organized sports. That number drops to 48% at $50k/yr. and again to 34% for those making $25k or less 5 . That is a 50% decrease as income drops.
#2: Too Much Stress, Not Enough Fun
In nearly every study when children were asked why they stop playing, one of the most common answers is that it’s just not fun anymore. While learning to deal with pressure and compete is a very important part of youth sports, we have gone too far in that direction. There are many underlying reasons kids aren’t having fun. Here are a few to consider:
- Not Playing with friends: Many kids don’t get to play on teams with their friends anymore because of the pressure to play on more competitive regional super teams. More pressure, less friends, is not typically a recipe for enjoyment.
- Lack of Free Play: Sometimes we forget that it’s a game. Games are supposed to be fun and encourage kids to experiment, improvise, and take risks without the fear of making mistakes. Free play, where there is no coaching, allows for this to happen and it’s an important part of development and fun. Unfortunately, free play is hard to find in today’s youth sports training environment. Nearly all activities are highly structured and managed by a coach.
- Over-involved Parents: Changing The Game Project refers to these parents as “parents who won’t let the game belong to the kids 6 ”. If parents are more stressed, nervous, or frustrated about an event than their child is, then something is wrong. Over-involved parents fret over and micromanage relationships with coaches, playing time, coaching decisions, officiating, and team performance – all in front of their kids. This does not create an environment conducive to fun.
- Lack of Playing Time: If kids aren’t playing, they won’t have fun. Playing is the reason they join a team. Our hyper-competitive environment often has kids sitting the bench for more than half of a game as young as age 9 or 10. The kids are there to play. Let them play! In many cases this happens due to our prioritization of winning over learning.
#1: The Wrong Goals
In most youth sports, especially as kids get older, the only goal or metric of success is winning. Unfortunately, winning doesn’t tell you how well you played. Especially in team sports. Sometimes you play well, but the opponent was just better. Sometimes you play better but lose due to factors you can’t control. Winning is important, but it’s not always an accurate measure of performance and development. If winning is our only measurement of success, then 50% of kids are failures every time they finish playing. We must change this mentality and start measuring what matters. When you measure a child’s individual progress, effort, and individual performance, they have fun. This is one of the primary reason kids love playing video games. They get immediate feedback to know how they are succeeding and contributing and know exactly what they need to do to improve. When you re-shape goals and objectives toward development and fun, you can achieve extraordinary results. In Norway, with a population that is roughly the size of Minnesota, they don’t even keep score until age 13. In the last winter Olympics, Norway won 39 medals. Twice as many as the US and more than any country ever in a single winter Olympics. Seems like they are doing something right.
How do we fix these problems?
We’ll spend a lot of time writing about this and engaging with parents, coaches, and players in the years to come in an effort to help solve these problems. Here are some initial thoughts:
- Change your behavior: If you are a coach, parent, or player, you can make personal changes that can improve outcomes for the kids you work with. It is up to you to make a change.
- Set the right goals: If your only goal is winning, you are on a dead-end road. Adjust your goals with your kids to be focused on development and fun. If you do this correctly, winning some games will be a natural consequence.
- Measure what matters: Stop measuring your child’s success by the outcome of a sporting event and instead measure their individual effort, progress, and fun. If you measure those things, your children will have more fun, improve faster, play longer, and…wait for it…win more games.
- Find the right fit: If your child is playing for a team or in an environment where they aren’t having fun, then consider a change. If you don’t address it, the writing is on the wall. They will eventually quit. You may have to find a team where the talent is at a lower level so they can get more playing time and confidence. It might be beneficial to find a team where they play with more friends or even consider trying a different sport for a while. if it’s not working for your kid, make a change.
What will you do this year to improve the sports environment for your kids?