As youth sports continue to intensify, increasingly more kids are being squeezed from sports — and often before puberty, growth spurts, or even time to evaluate whether they have a true interest in a given sport. Travel and club sports are being offered at younger and younger ages, and two trends are occurring as a result:
1.) The intensity and seriousness experienced by kids, often younger than 10 years old, makes sports feel more like a job rather than a fun, meaningful, social, and physical life experience.
2.) Kids who do not get in line for intense sports early in life are quickly on the outside looking in, steered away from sports before many have even had a chance to experience the sport!
The net result is that we are driving otherwise talented student athletes out of sport due to intensity, and we are also pushing otherwise interested (and potentially talented) kids away simply because they were not signed up for an elite team by 6 years old.
Why kids play sports
The #1 reason kids play sports is to have FUN! In fact, studies have shown that most kids would rather play on a losing team then sit the bench on a winning team, lending even more evidence to what kids want from their sport experience. Below is a list of the rest of the reasons why kids play sports, and notice that “winning” doesn’t appear until #10 on the list:
1. To Have Fun
2. To improve their skills
3. To be with friends
4. To do something they’re good at
5. For the excitement of competition
6. To become physically fit
7. To be part of a team
8. For the challenge of competition
9. To learn new skills
10. To succeed or win
When we look at the reasons why kids play sports, it is clear that the focus should be on fun, self-confidence development, social relations, physical fitness, and skill-building. What youth sports should not be, if interest and participation are the goals, is a minor league for professional sports. When league operators fail to understand the significance of why kids play and instead turn their league into something that more resembles pro sports, it leaves kids vulnerable to sport burnout — and prematurely quitting sports. I know this firsthand as not a week goes by in my office where I don’t treat kids going through sport burnout, many deciding to quit sports simply because the experience is no longer any fun.
The odds of making it
Roughly only about 5% of all high school athletes will go on to play college sports, and it is important to know that only a small fraction of these student athletes will be “full-ride” athletes. In reality, many student athletes are on partial scholarships, walk-on status, or voluntarily competing at D3 schools that do not offer athletic scholarship money. And looking at all the college student athletes competing today, less than 2% will play professional sports. With these facts in hand the questions that need answered include:
1. Why are we pushing kids so hard when the odds of going far in sports are so astronomical? Statistically speaking, your kid has a better chance at being a rocket scientist or or brain surgeon than a pro athlete, but we don’t push kids into those careers in the same ways in which we push sports.
2. We also know that keeping kids in sports helps them grow mentally, physically, and socially. What are we doing to encourage participation, and how are we addressing why so many kids are leaving youth sports? If your local league is cutting kids before they are out of elementary school, there’s a really good chance those kids will quit the sport permanently.
3. What oversight do we have from schools and communities to ensure adults with proper education and experience fully understand the data presented in this article? If our leaders are short-sighted, countless numbers of kids are directly impacted, with many leaving sports well before they have even had a chance to compete.
Depending where you live, it is very possible kids in your neighborhood are experiencing youth sports in less than healthy ways. When sports are more like work than play, and when kids are being cut before they enter puberty, the net result is anything but optimal. The bottom line is kids want to play, not live out the unmet dreams of the adults running their leagues and zapping the fun and teachable lessons from the experience.