Inside the Decline in Youth Sports
What’s causing it and how do we fix it?
Participation in youth sports is declining in the U.S. — and parents may be partly to blame. According to a report from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, youth ages 6-12 who played team sports in 2018 was down almost 8% from 2008. As a father of four, camp and youth development professional, and youth sports coach in the Triangle, I’ve witnessed the decline firsthand, and I’d like for us, as parents, to do something about it.
The Washington Post recently published a couple of articles that cite a variety of reasons for the decline in youth sports. Its June 1, 2016, article titled, “Why 70 percent of kids quit sports by age 13,” highlights several reasons for the decline, including participants not having fun and feeling pressured to specialize in a single sport and achieve at an elite level. An Oct. 4, 2015, article published by The Washington Post titled, “Are parents ruining youth sports? Fewer kids play amid pressure,” discusses the ultra-competitive youth sports culture parents have helped create.
So what is causing the decline in youth sports participation? Jason Bocarro, a professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management at North Carolina State University whose research includes youth sports, says he is “living this as both a researcher and a parent. … It is a complex problem without a single solution.”
A primary reason is cost. Youth sports expenses range from registration fees to travel equipment, making it difficult for some families to afford it. This creates an access issue for low-income families.
The second reason is specialization. With the goal of acquiring a college scholarship in mind, many parents push their athlete to specialize in a single sport, which not only reduces participation numbers across all sports, but can also have a negative impact on the athlete. Specialization in one sport often leads to travel team participation, which not only requires athletes to achieve at the highest possible level, but also leaves out youth who don’t compete or play at that elite level. Specialization can also result in overuse injuries, which can prevent the athlete from playing that sport altogether.
A final cause that goes along with travel sports is the pull of qualified coaches away from recreational teams to travel teams. Since travel sports clubs strive to hire the most experienced coaches, less qualified coaches are often left to manage recreational teams, which may also hurt participation on those teams — especially if a child has a less-than-positive experience and opts not to play again, or feels he or she is not good enough to play.
Parents vs. Youth Perspective
If you ask a parent and child what they get out of youth sports, you’re likely to get very different answers. The Oct. 4, 2015 article in The Washington Post surmises that “youth sports is the new keeping up with the Joneses.” While many parents take a humble approach to travel sports, this observation by The Washington Post appears to be directed at parents who consider their child’s participation on a travel team a “badge of honor.”
For children, it’s supposed to be — and often is — about having fun, learning new skills, teamwork and experiencing positive coaching. That same article in The Washington Post reports that a George Washington University survey of nearly 150 youth found that winning was ranked very low — at 48 out of 81 factors contributing to happiness in youth sports.
Aaron M. Brown, owner of Brown Strength and Conditioning, a sports performance gym in Raleigh, is a also certified strength and conditioning specialist who is accredited by USA Weightlifting and works with elite athletes in his gym. “In my experience training young athletes for youth sports, I have seen many kids losing their passion for the game due to unreasonable expectations put upon them by their parents,” he says. “In order for us as parents to allow our kids to enjoy youth sports, it’s time to step back and let them play, fail, succeed and most importantly, have fun!”
Negative Impacts of Parental Pressure
In November 2018, a 40-year-old father of a youth football player from Princeton, North Carolina, was arrested after assaulting an 11-year-old player from the Selma Yellow Jackets youth football team during a youth league game taking place on the field at Smithfield-Selma High School in Johnston County. According to the Johnston County Sheriff’s Office, the man was arrested after witnesses say he picked up the player and slammed him on the ground. They charged the parent with assaulting a child under 12. This is just one local example of parents getting out of hand during youth sports games.
As part of an effort to curb unruly sportsmanship, the Town of Clayton’s Parks and Recreation Department requires parents to attend a preseason meeting and sign a “Parent Code of Conduct” that they must adhere to for the season, helping ensure a positive experience for all participating youth athletes.
“We strive to provide a fun and engaging environment for all of our youth sports leagues, and we believe this starts on Day One with the conduct of our parents,” says Nick Rummage, athletic program coordinator for Clayton Parks and Recreation. “We set out our expectations before the season even starts. Parents know they are expected to positively support the players, coaches and officials at all times. The children playing the game will emulate the behavior of the adults around them, and sour attitudes lead to an unenjoyable experience.”
How to Reverse the Problem
So what can we, as parents, do to help reverse this problem? We can and should change our focus from that of winning and being No. 1 to that of positive youth development. There are many life skills learned through youth sports that we should focus on as parents: cooperation, goal setting, sportsmanship and teamwork, to name a few.
We can also help keep the “youth” in youth sports by empowering young athletes to take the lead in this area. Let’s allow them to decide whether or not to play, and give them the power to choose what sports they want to play. Let’s encourage them to play a variety of sports and try new activities. Let’s also allow them to take a break if they want to.
I experienced this myself recently when our oldest two children both decided to take a break from spring sports and activities. Our 8-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter had been playing sports for more than three years, season after season. They started with soccer through the Greater Cleveland Athletic Association in Johnston County. From there, our daughter went on to participate in gymnastics at Dream Gymnastics in Garner, and our son played basketball and tennis through Clayton Parks and Recreation, as well as PGA Jr. League golf through Pine Hollow Golf Club in Clayton. We respected their decision to take a break from sports. (To be honest, the break from practices and matches three days a week between the two children was somewhat of a relief for my wife and me, too.)
I believe that when children are intrinsically motivated to play sports, as opposed to extrinsically motivated by parents, they have a much better experience and will be more likely to stick with it. I witnessed this when coaching our children’s soccer teams. You could tell the players who were there because they were genuinely interested in playing, versus the children who were there because their parents forced them to be there.
Benefits of Youth Sports
There are numerous benefits of youth sports — mainly life skills and positive youth development. As I stated previously, youth athletes learn many life skills through sports — cooperation, goal setting, sportsmanship and teamwork — that are valuable to a child’s learning experiences, especially later in life.
One final benefit is the development of lifetime activities. As someone who grew up running cross-country and track, I have been able to continue running later in life as a competitive age-group runner, which helps me maintain an active and healthy lifestyle. Similarly, when children develop an interest in lifetime activities such as golfing, running, swimming or tennis, it helps them stay active and healthy later in life. Encouraging this in our children should be our ultimate goal and joy as parents.
In the book “Youth Development Principles and Practices in Out-of-School Time Settings” (Sagamore-Venture Publishing, March 2018), Bocarro co-authored a chapter titled, “The Status of Youth Sports in American Society.” He opens with an example from a local youth female athlete who was a top recruit and had committed to playing college soccer on a scholarship. The opening states:
“As I lay on the field that day, I knew my leg was broken; I heard it and I felt it. I didn’t even try to get up and I heard my dad yelling from the sideline. ‘Come on, Hannah; you’re fine. Get up!’ My mind raced. I thought about my parents and how much time, money and emotion they had invested in my soccer career since I was little. I thought about my coaches and teammates and how much they were counting on me. Our team had a great chance to win the state championship that year. Then I thought about how much of my life had been consumed by soccer since I was 6 years old. At that moment, I realized that I wouldn’t have to play soccer anymore. It was the happiest day of my life.”
It is the responsibility of coaches and parents to provide inspiring youth development experiences for children. As they grow into adults, these athletes will remember and hold onto their youth sports days. If we want our children to have positive memories of playing youth sports, let’s do everything we can to help make that happen.
Dave Herpy is a father of four, camp and youth development professional, and youth sports coach in the Triangle. He has a master’s in recreation and sport science from Ohio University and more than 20 years of experience directing camps and coaching youth sports.