Putting the Fun Back in Youth Sports

Put the fun back in youth sports

Google “Parents ruining sports for kids” and a myriad of articles will appear. Whether they’re brawling on the field over an unfair ruling, as happened this summer in Colorado, or pushing their kids to the brink of collapse, many parents have gotten carried away. The pressure they put on their children to perform and succeed has taken the joy out of competing.

The purpose of sports has always been to bring athletes together for exercise and team bonding. They offer valuable developmental lessons, too, like problem solving, communication, and the importance of keeping commitments. But above all else, sports are meant to be fun. 

Overcommitted and Overscheduled

Playing pick-up games with neighbors and friends outside of an organized league was the norm a generation or two ago, but times have changed. Now, kids arrive home from school, quickly finish homework, and pile back into the car to be taxied from practice to practice. The typical weekend for many modern families is consumed by a grueling lineup of practices and games. This leaves little room for spontaneity, adventure, and the pure joy of a day with no itinerary—three things youth truly need.

Similarly, sports used to take place in a single season, but many have become year-round commitments with offseason conditioning and participation in both school and club teams. This can lead to injuries and burnout, not to mention the mounting financial burden put on these families, especially with multiple sports going at one time. 

According to the Chicago Tribune, “More than 60% of American families spend $1,200 to $6,000 per child annually on youth sports; 20% of families shell out $12,000 annually per child.”

How Did We Get Here?

Many factors could be at play in this progression. Parents today are acutely involved in their kids’ lives. The pressure (and there’s plenty) to provide the best for their children could be subsequently negatively affecting their kids’ experience on the field. Some may also be living vicariously through their kids who show athletic promise, wanting them to have something they did not. For many, striving for a college scholarship to offset those astronomical tuition fees is a big motivating factor. All in all, winning has just taken too much priority over learning and having fun.

The Need to Succeed

Whatever the reason, this pressure leads players to feel maxed out and cause some to quit prematurely. “Pressure to succeed can lead to burnout at an early age and play a significant role in why 70% of kids quit sports by age 13,” says Eric Bean, PhD, CMPC and executive board member of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. Additionally, there can be many negative effects associated with pressure to succeed including increased anxiety and extrinsic motivation to engage in more risk-taking behaviors, Bean says. 

So how do we change the current climate of immense pressure on young athletes to win and succeed? We reached out to a few youth coaches and referees for their advice. 

Getting Back to the Basics

1. Let Kids Play
“It is important to remember that it is only a game that is meant to be fun.” says Taylor Check, U8 soccer referee. Over the years, she’s had her fair share of parental interference, with some leading to removal from the field. “Parents sometimes take it a little too far. This causes unnecessary arguments that only delay the game. The kids just want to play the game.”

Likewise, Shane Rineer, first assistant coach for Drexel University Men’s Team recommends parents “Let their son or daughter go at their own pace.” From his experience, children fall out of love with the sport not because of the sport but because of the pressure their parents put on them. Instead, focus on their enjoyment while on the field and let their performance and the outcome take a back seat. 

2. Set expectations early
To help eliminate unnecessary pressure and sideline distractions, it’s important to set expectations for parents and players beforethe season starts says Adam Doyle, U10 boys and U13 girls soccer coach. He suggests preparing parents for the season by discussing acceptable sideline behavior, requesting a cooling-off period before approaching coaches, and explaining the difference between fair play time and equal play time.

3. Promote a healthy balance
Finding the right mix between competitive sports and giving your kids the freedom to have fun is key for healthy development says Bean. He advises that parents offer their children the ability to play sports without the direction of coaches or parents. Let them get dirty and play to have fun, not to win.

Many experts also advise against children specializing in a specific sport at a young age. Instead, they suggest kids try multiple sports to learn what they enjoy most and diminish the risk of overuse injuries and burnout.

4. Continue getting them involved
Without all of the drama and undue pressure, participation in team sports can offer valuable physical and psychological benefits. “On an individual level, participation in team sports has been shown to boost self-esteem, increase a sense of belonging, and reduce the likelihood of depression,” shares Bean. Likewise, Doyle and Rineer have witnessed their players cultivate friendships and learn the importance of commitment, healthy competition, conflict resolution, and trusting others through being a part of the team.