Getting kids active is a constant and worthwhile effort, and rightly so: A third of children in the United States are considered overweight. Team sports are an incredible avenue for this activity. Youth sports leagues allow kids to learn the value of teamwork, work toward a goal and have fun — all while exercising. Getting some children to play and engage is a challenge, for sure, but another challenge exists that is just as important: preventing kids from getting burned out on their sports.
Burnout is an issue with comp-level players who practice five days a week before age 10, but that’s not our concern here. Also, we’re not talking about overscheduled kids who want to quit a sport because they have so many other activities (not to mention homework) that they are just worn out. What we are addressing in this post are rec players who go from loving a sport to disliking or even hating it. Many factors may cause this burnout, but youth sports leagues can take positive steps toward preventing it. Here are some tips for organizations to help ensure players continue to look forward to each practice, game and season:
Understandably, kids will look forward to games more than they will to practice. Yet practice is necessary to work on skills — it’s where most of players’ improvement (especially at younger ages) occurs. However, when workouts seem tedious or repetitive, all but the most dedicated players will disengage. Encourage coaches in youth sports leagues to emphasize fun during practice, and give them resources such as coaching clinics and online videos and workout plans, to get to that point. For example, direct coaches to refer to drills as “games” — and make those games as fun as possible. Kids will respond better if they think of practice as a series of games instead of work.
Crazy schedules can frazzle kids just as much as adults. If a child is looking forward to a Saturday of just one game but is unexpectedly faced with two or three, that can deflate his or her enthusiasm. Granted, sometimes a youth sports league’s schedule-juggling is inevitable because rainouts and circumstances beyond your control, but other times, it might simply be a lack of organization. Keep scheduling as consistent as possible — practices at the same time every week, and minimal doubleheaders and bye weeks. Online league management software can help you with this task, which will ultimately be appreciated by parents and coaches as well as players.
The goal of youth rec sports should never be championships — and to many leagues’ credit, winning and losing don’t carry quite as much importance today as skill development, community and fun do. That said, kids generally know when they are winning or losing, and subtly understand that winning is preferred, no matter what their progressive coaches and parents say. As a result, players on struggling teams may not see the fun of their efforts, and players on hyper-competitive teams may not like the pressure. As a league director, you can counter these burnout-inducing consequences by further de-emphasizing winning and losing. Do standings really need to be kept for leagues without playoffs? Do you really need to keep score for 6-year-old soccer? Do all of your coaches have their priorities in the right place?
True story: One youth basketball league stopped using the scoreboard, other than the clock, for its 7- and 8-year-olds, and the focus instantly changed. Coaches began playing kids evenly rather than trying to find a “winning” lineup. Players looked to pass and run plays, knowing that losing wasn’t an option if they screwed up. Parents didn’t get crazy at the refs, and a struggling player’s first basket of the season might set off a celebration wilder than any victory could. Obviously, winning and losing do become somewhat more important as kids get older, but keep a healthy perspective until then.