“We’re in an environment where everything is extremely structured for children….Sports used to be something that kids go out and do for fun. But now, it’s become so regimented, where parents are starting to inject their own experiences, or past failures if you will, onto their children. And it just takes the fun out of it.”
– Kobe Bryant, talking about the current state of youth sports
A recent study by Utah State University that was published on the ESPN homepage has found a number of interesting issues and trends occurring in youth sports today, including a very surprising finding:
Most kids quit sports by age 11.
With sport participation being such an instrumental part of physical, social, and emotional development, it’s important that we understand why so many kids exit sports at such an early age? Like most questions in life there doesn’t appear to be one, single reason why kids are quitting, but instead a number of factors. Over time, it appears as though we have replaced the fun experience that sports used to provide kids with a more modern youth sport landscape that is more business-like and resembles professional sports.
Key takeaways (and implications) from the study
- The average child today spends less than three years playing a sport and quits by age 11. This finding is quite startling, especially when you consider that the majority of kids aren’t cut (deselected) by this age, but are leaving sports voluntarily. Rather than learning life skills and bonding with teammates, more kids today are quitting sports and turning their attention toward other life endeavors. One big reason for this, in my opinion, is that youth sports have become a lot more serious and a lot less fun. Studies have shown over and over when kids stop having fun playing sports, they often look to do other things with their time.
- Fewer trained coaches. The Utah State study found that kids who play for trained coaches dropped out at a much lesser rate compared to kids who play for volunteer coaches with no training. It’s likely that trained coaches, in addition to having a better understanding of the sport they are coaching, also have basic training in working with kids. The more coaches are trained to work with kids, generally the better overall experience for kids. Unfortunately, too many sport programs today are under-staffed and have to rely on just about anybody that will coach the team — and these haphazard ways of assigning coaches are contributing to a faster exit from sports for some kids.
- Increased costs impacts participation. Depending on the sport, some parents have surprisingly found that it will cost them hundreds, if not thousands of dollars for their kid to play a sport. When you factor in equipment, uniforms, physical examinations, and travel (more on that in a moment), the dollars can add up in a hurry.
- Community sports programs taken over by travel sports. It wasn’t all that long ago that the only sports afforded to kids were the local leagues in their community. Today, however, there are travel leagues just about everywhere, and while these leagues can (potentially) help kids develop their athletic skills at a faster rate, there are two very distinct problems that can impact youth sport participation. The first, of course, are the costs associated with travel sports — including gas, hotels, food, and training gear/uniforms. The second potential problem has to do with intensity — when kids stop having fun playing and start considering it a job, the likelihood for premature quitting increases dramatically.
The sport specialization trend has been in full swing for awhile now (meaning more kids play just one sport rather than sampling multiple sports each year), leaving kids susceptible to sports burnout. Sport specialization isn’t the only issue contributing to burnout, as we have also witnessed more kids competing in multiple sports during the same season (meaning kids play for 2 or 3 teams full-time during the same season). Another growing issue we are witnessing is a shortage in youth and interscholastic officials, further compromising the quality (and sometimes integrity) of the game. And finally, parent outbursts at youth sport games (including physical violence) may be the biggest factor why a kid doesn’t want to go out and compete — who wants that kind of embarrassment??
It’s important that we stay tuned in to the issues and trends impacting youth sports, as many kids have learned invaluable life skills simply by being part of a sports team. Learning how to set and achieve goals, develop self-motivation, refine focus, bounce back from adversity, multi-task, and learn time management are but just a few of the countless skills kids learn through sports. We may not fix all the problems identified in the Utah State study, but by keeping an open mind, positive attitude, and making sure sports are fun we give ourselves the best chance for reversing some of the negative trends identified in the article.