From the ice hockey rink to the baseball diamond, youth sports are a large part of American culture. Participation in youth sports can provide great benefits to children - from increased physical activity to time management skills and friendships. Despite these benefits, youth sports participation is on the decline. According to the Aspen Project, in 2018, 38% of children participated in a team sport, down from 45% in 2008. Is the toxic culture of youth sports to blame for this decline?
Attrition in youth sports has been a problem for more than a decade.
Children start sports to have fun, and they stay in sports if they are having fun.
Parents may incorrectly perceive that the child primarily values winning.
Adolescents drop out of sports due to injury, which can be from trauma or overuse.
Pushing elite athlete development may increase the child’s social isolation and anxiety.
Older athletes may be at particular risk of linking their entire identity to athletic success.
Parents can help by focusing more on the relationship and less on the game.
Benefits of youth sports participation
Children who participate in youth sports, particularly those who compete on travel teams, have to manage demanding schedules. They usually attend practices at least three times weekly, with practices lasting late into the evening. Then, they have to turn around and get up early for school the next morning. These athletes must develop strong time management skills in order to balance academics and sports.
Team sports also allow children to make lasting friendships and have fun. If you observe the end of practice for any youth sport, you will often see the children joking around and enjoying the company of their peers. The teams spend a lot of time together throughout a season, so team chemistry is key to success.
Competitive parents may cause burnout
The time investment that is required of children in youth sports is matched by the financial investment that parents must make. From travel to gear, the cost of youth sports is incredibly high. This monetary investment often leads parents to get unduly invested in the team’s success — regardless of their intentions at the start of the season. This pressure to win may not be overt, but it can take a toll on the child.
Unfortunately, a heavy investment by parents can cause the sport to be less fun for the athlete. Children mostly report the reason they join a sport is to “have fun” but parents think their child’s motivation is “to win.” Parents are often tempted to talk strategy on the way to and from games, but this creates friction in the relationship. This disconnect may be driving the attrition from sports as athletes reach adolescence.
The developmental, social, and physical benefits of sports can be undermined by specializing too early, focusing too much on developing elite players, poor recruitment and training of coaches, and failing to demand good sportsmanship. Hyper-competitive parents who want to propel their child to the top can also create factions within teams by withholding information about athlete development camps or clinics. These are the early symptoms of a toxic organized sports culture which can lead to tragedy.
Injury risk and mental health challenges
Injuries are a major risk in youth sports, and they could be a cause of athlete attrition. Specialization in one sport, defined as participating for more than 8 months of the year, or training for more hours per week than one’s age can increase the risk for injury. An Icelandic study found a 5-fold increase in injury rates requiring medical assistance among adolescents who trained more than 6 hours per week, and these injuries can precipitate athletes dropping out of organized sports.
Parents may not realize that when growth plates are closing in adolescence, young athletes may be at greater risk of injury due to trauma and overuse. As bones expand and muscles strengthen, the child is vulnerable to injury, particularly in full-contact sports like football, rugby, and ice hockey.
In addition to the physical toll, injuries often cause stress and anxiety for athletes. Time away from the sport and the social isolation of not being able to train and compete is difficult for young people. The emotional toll on parents who worry about their child’s recovery, not to mention the financial burden of ensuring the cost of care is covered, is not insignificant. On top of these short-term worries, the long-term impact of injury on a top athlete’s prospects may weigh heavily.
These pressures can lead athletes to play through pain and early warning signs, which leads to overuse injuries. Overuse is the cause of at least half of all sports injuries. While knee pain and “Little League elbow” are common injuries in organized youth sports, education and training combined with proper supervision can help reduce the risk of injury and promote early treatment when one does occur.
Overspecialization can also cause traumas not easily identified on x-ray. These include undue pressure on a young athlete to develop into an elite competitor and friction between athletes competing for a spot on a travel team. Many parents often hope that their child’s athletic ability will lead to college scholarships.
Early or over-specialization can lead to injury and burnout, killing a child’s love of the sport. Linking one’s entire identity to a single sport is harmful, and over-exposure on social media is exacerbating this risk. In fact, parents are calling on NCAA to address a crisis in college athlete suicides, citing the stress of balancing academics and athletics.
The future of youth sports depends on parents
The negative aspects of what is widely considered a toxic youth sports culture in America can be rectified by how parents engage with their children and the child’s coach. Immediate changes can make a difference.
What can parents do? Broaden the lens on your child’s sporting experiences. How can their athletics be a source of connection, between you and your child, your child and their peers, and their relationship with their body?
Remember what children value most: fun, mentoring and skill development. A meta-analysis of studies exploring participation in youth sports found that enjoyment was strongly correlated with continued participation. For youth who are socially vulnerable, organizations must also reduce common barriers to participation while emphasizing mentoring and skill development.
When driving to and from practices and games, parents should avoid giving coaching advice or game tips. From podcasts to allowing your child to control the music, there are many ways to use that drive time to build a relationship and preserve your child’s love of sports.
What can parents do to improve the climate of youth sports?
In 2010, Susanne Navas, a mother and avid triathlete, recognized the toxicity in youth sports and decided to start a youth triathlon program in Waterbury, CT, to bring underserved youth into the sport. Currently, Race4Chase has 30 sites in four states, providing a summer of daily training, mentoring, and fun, while teaching kids life and social skills.
Navas, a certified Triathlon Coach, Life Coach, and Recovery Coach, says, “As a mom, I get how hard it is. Your kid loves a sport, and you want to give them the opportunity to fulfill their potential. You may believe this is their ticket to college. So, travel sports, with the opportunities and high commitment level, are enticing. You’re afraid if you don’t do it, your kid will fall behind. And if you go that route, it takes over weekends, holidays, family time and resources. It becomes a part-time job for the driving parent and the kid. That’s a lot of pressure!”
Unfortunately, kids often self-sort as athletes — or not — around sixth grade. Seeing sports as an excellent way to maintain physical and mental health and build a healthy lifestyle that will ideally last long-term, Navas is dismayed by what she sees is “just another way we are making money off of kids and families, forgetting the deeper values associated with true sportsmanship.”
In Iceland, a youth sports movement has helped kids choose a “natural high” instead of drugs or alcohol. In two decades, teen drinking has dropped from 42% to 5%. Investment in youth sports is important to reversing the obesity epidemic, we just need to avoid the pitfalls of over-training or hyperfocus.
The author is grateful for the insights provided by Susanne Navas, a certified Yoga Instructor, Triathlon Coach, Life Coach, Recovery Coach and founder of The Reboot Coach.