Why Kids’ Sports Aren’t Fun Anymore

We've forgotten that what children learn on the field stays with them for a lifetime

You know the type. They pace, waving their arms and barking commands to the players running back and forth. They scream at the referees, taking every call as a personal affront and expressing their opinion on every decision. When a player exits the game, they loudly point out every mistake and every poor choice made.

No, it’s not the coach — it’s the parent.

Kids’ sports used to be simple. Coaches taught the kids the rules, helped them build skills and sharpen abilities, and modeled the art of winning or losing. Parents sat on the sidelines and encouraged, occasionally uttering mild frustration with bad calls.

Parents now lose their minds over Little League, at soccer games, during youth basketball and at lacrosse meets. They humiliate the team, themselves or their kids with their bad behavior, and sometimes they even get into physical confrontations and fights. It’s ugly. 

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1: Parents shell out big bucks. With schools across America facing budget cuts, many now use “pay to play” programs, or have such large student bodies that only a select few get to play sports. Companies have stepped into the gap, offering clinics, camps, local leagues, and travel and elite teams. When parents have a lot of money on the line, they often demand a return on that investment.

2: Parents take youth sports way too seriously. Instead of focusing on the immediate joys and experiences of their young athletes, parents hope that little Johnny is offered a free ride to college when he gets older. Yet out of the millions who apply for sports scholarships annually, only two percent of student athletes receive an NCAA sports scholarship — and often it’s only partial aid. On average, the scholarships are less than what parents paid for elite teams, camps or lessons over the years.

3: Parents imagine their kids going pro. Never mind that Johnny is seven. Visions of “draft day” and dollar signs lie behind some of this as parents push for kids to get more play time and future scouting opportunities. Yet only 1 in 6,000 kids will make the National Football League. Only 2.5 kids out of 10,000 will play in the National Basketball Association.

“What we’re seeing is the ‘professionalization’ of youth sports,” said Daniel Gould, Ph.D., director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University.

What kid wants to play under all this pressure?

About 45 million kids play an organized sport right now, according to the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine. And by age 15, up to 80 percent of these kids quit. The Sports and Fitness Industry Association concurs on this trend. Total youth sports participation dropped 10 percent since 2009.

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Today’s kids have enough challenges to their physical health: There’s too much sitting, too much screen time, too much fast food. If they drop out of sports, they lose physical benefits — exercise, increased stamina and improved development. They also lose many life lessons that are necessary for them to be successful adults: self-discipline, positive self-image, being a good winner or loser, learning from experience and teamwork.

If they even can play.

“The system is now designed to meet the needs of the most talented kids,” said Mark Hyman, an author and professor of sports management at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “We no longer value participation. We value excellence.”

Think that sounds crazy? John Engh, chief operating officer of the National Alliance for Youth Sports, points out that 8- and 9-year-olds are being turned away from some leagues because the other players started as preschoolers.

Something needs to change, and concerned sports organizations are determined that it does.

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Major League Baseball (MLB) has partnered with the Positive Coaching Alliance. Their goal is to train youth coaches to encourage kids to play ball for fun and positive development. Meanwhile, U.S. Youth Soccer is moving to smaller teams to change the focus to fun and skill development.

The Aspen Institute’s “Project Play” is making numerous recommendations to return the fun to kids’ sports. It’s reintroducing free play, having kids try numerous sports, improving training for coaches and starting in-town leagues.

But perhaps the most revolutionary suggestion is this: Just ask kids what they want out of playing.

In a study in 2014 for George Washington University, researcher Amanda Visik asked a group of young athletes why they played their chosen sport. Not surprisingly, 9 out of 10 kids said playing for fun was the number-one reason they were involved — not the NFL, the NBA or even a college scholarship.

Maybe by taking the focus off elitism and high-stake winning, parents can relax and see the bigger picture: What their children learn on the field makes them a better human being.

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