How adults are ruining sports for kids

soccer players
CC BY 2.0 Mark Bonica

Pressure to specialize, play on elite travel teams, and win scholarships has taken the fun out of the game for many U.S. kids.

Playing sports is a wonderful way for kids to make friends, develop skills, feel part of a community, and stay physically active. While many kids start playing sports for the love of the game, there is an unfortunate shift that happens as they get older. Participation becomes less about fun and more about performance, which ends up alienating those kids who just want to play, without becoming professional athletes.

The Sports and Fitness Industry Association says that 70 percent of kids leave organized sports by age 13. This is really sad, considering the hours of training and playing they’ve done up until that point. With most kids playing for an average of 7 years before quitting, surely their sport has become a big enough part of their life for them to want it to remain? Apparently not, which leads one to wonder what’s killing the urge to play.

A recent study by Yellowbrick, a mental-health organization whose mission is to help young adults gain independence, suggests that pressure is creating unrealistic expectations for kids and turning them away from what should be good, healthy entertainment and socializing. A shocking 76 percent of the 1,000 American youth surveyed said they were disciplined for poor performance, and that they were pressured to perform well. Coaches were the worst source of pressure, at 42 percent, followed by friends and parents (both 27 percent).

Is it any wonder, then, that participation in all sports has dropped 10 percent in the last five years, just when U.S. kids need it more than ever to stay healthy and active?

These sad numbers go hand-in-hand with the rise in helicopter parenting and over-scheduled lives that leave little room for spontaneous play. If kids are constantly being schlepped from city to city, from arena to field, from practice to game, it loses its fun appeal. There’s never any time to play pick-up games in the park or on the street.

The Washington Post agrees that the adult-driven approach to sports is damaging kids, with Michael Rosenwald writing in 2015:

“Some of the drop-off is attributable to the recession, particularly in low-income urban areas. But experts fear larger socioeconomic forces are in play, especially in the suburbs, where the shift to elite competition over the past two decades has taken a growing toll: Children are playing fewer sports, and the less talented are left behind in recreational leagues with poor coaching, uneven play, and the message that they aren’t good enough.”

The following infographic was made by Yellowbrick to illustrate the findings from its study on pressure and youth sports:

How adults are ruining sports for kids
Pressure to specialize, play on elite travel teams, and win scholarships has taken the fun out of the game for many U.S. kids.

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