National Youth Sports Week: Why Fun Should Always Come First

Why Kids Are Leaving Youth Sports

While youth sports remain as popular a pastime as ever, there is great concern over the dropout rate among participants. It’s been reported that of the roughly 40 million kids who take part in youth sports across the United States, around 70% will quit by the time they turn 13.

According to the kids themselves, the reason for this comes down to fun—or, rather, the lack of it.

Sports psychologists and researchers attribute the lack of fun in sports to the social and cultural emphasis on winning and individual specialization, rather than exercise, learning teamwork, and, most importantly, play.

When parents, coaches and organizations lose sight of those benefits in favor of results, they put undue pressure on children, leading to emotional, psychological, and physical fatigue. It’s no wonder that so many young people lose interest in athletic participation by the time they reach puberty.

While this all may seem obvious, a new clinical report on organized youth sports confirms it, while offering a solution to the problem: the best way to encourage kids in sport and ensure they reap the benefits of athletic competition is to keep things fun.  

It Should Be Fun for Parents Too

Much of the toxicity in sports comes from unreasonable expectations or pressure from parents. Sports psychologists have a term for this: Little League Parent Syndrome.

Almost everyone who has participated in youth sports has witnessed or experienced this kind of behavior at one point or another: parents yelling at their kids (or the referee or coaches) from the sidelines, judiciously comparing the time their kid plays against others on the team, filling every part of the calendar with practice, spending loads of money on top-of-the-line gear and/or expensive one-on-one coaching or clinics, fostering unreasonable expectations of collegiate or even professional success on kids when the probability—even for naturally talented players—is slim-to-none.

None of this behavior is likely to result in children doing better at sports—in fact, it stands a better-than-not-chance of driving them away. That’s because it is based on the parent’s expectations and goals, rather than their child’s. Youth sports should always be about the kids, never the parents.

That said, kids won’t enjoy playing sports if their parents aren’t also having fun. Whether that comes from participating in practice and games, or simply cheering them on from the sidelines, parent engagement should always be encouraging, never punitive or aggressive.

Tips for Keeping Youth Sports Fun, Healthy and Safe:

Now that we’ve established why the focus of youth sports should be fun, lets look at how to make them fun. Here are some key tips, as recommended by various experts in the field.

Encourage multi-sport play—but limit team play per season:

Participation in multiple sports cuts down on physical fatigue and overuse injuries, while challenging kids to learn and develop new physical skills. That said, if kids are playing league sports, they should only play one per season, to avoid those same dangers.

It’s not about winning or losing…really, it’s not!

Parents should avoid dissecting specific outcomes relating to their child’s participation in organized sports. This includes the final score of a game or mistakes they made during play. If a child wants to talk about these things, parents should let them bring it up and be encouraging when helping them improve. The corny old saying about it not mattering whether you win or lose, but merely how you play the game is true—at least when it comes to youth sports.

Pay attention to the team dynamics

One of the main factors that drives children away from sports is abuse, which most commonly takes the form of hazing and bullying between teammates. However, it is not limited to the players—coaches and even other parents can be vindictive, judgmental, and negative. Pay close attention to how your child gets along with their teammates, as well as the general atmosphere as exhibited by the adults surrounding it. If you find it to be a toxic environment, it’s best to find a different team for your child to play on.

Talk to kids about their goals

If your child shows an aptitude or interest in a particular sport and expresses the desire to pursue it more seriously, that’s great! But it’s important to have boundaries. One way to do this is to sit down with them and ask what they hope to accomplish (making sure they keep their own expectations reasonable). That way, when they face struggles or grow discouraged, you can remind them of their original goals.

Keep Things Loose

While participation in organized sports helps instill a sense of discipline, there is a limit to just how organized it should be. There’s no reason to create a military-like atmosphere in youth sports. And while drills certainly have their place in practice, experts agree that kids should also be encouraged to partake in free play.

Parents can do their part by practicing with children themselves, making sure to keep things loose and fun.

If you are the parent of a young athlete, try to worry less about how their athletic skills are developing, and more about if they’re having fun and getting exercise. They won’t judge you if your skills aren’t good while playing with them—so treat them with the same sense of empathy.