Over the last decade, the number of kids participating in youth sports has been declining. In fact, 70 percent of young athletes will drop out of organized sports by the time they turn 13.
And research — like the 2014 George Washington University study — has found that the reasons kids are leaving youth sports are similar to their motives for turning to video games. They want action, freedom to make mistakes without fear of backlash, socialization with friends and control over their own activity.
Most importantly, they just want to have fun.
The reasons kids like sports
Researchers asked young athletes to define what is fun about sports, offering 81 different reasons. Surprisingly, they found that young athletes care more about playing and being part of the action than they do winning. The top six reasons were:
- Trying your best
- When coaches treat players with respect
- Getting playing time
- Playing well together as a team
- Getting along with your teammates
- Exercising and being active
Winning isn’t everything
And the bottom of the list is even more eye-opening: winning (No. 48); playing in tournaments (No. 63); earning medals or trophies (No. 67); and traveling to new places to play (No. 73).
Let that sink in for a second — kids just don’t care about winning. They aren’t driven by the competitive culture that has consumed youth sports. But in a world of elite club/travel teams and early recruiting, what can parents do to make sports fun again?
How parents can help make sports about the athletes
- Simply ask your children if they are having fun in their sport. Whatever your children’s definition of fun, if it’s not being fulfilled by their sport, they will turn elsewhere. Find out what they find fun about their sports — and what they don’t enjoy. Then, you can start to adjust their experience.
- Consider burnout and sport specialization. Over-involvement in the same sport, especially in a competitive league, is an easy way for young athletes to experience burnout, both mentally and physically. If your child is interested in more than one sport, consider giving them options to switch up their routine and provide a new experience.
- Make sure your athlete is getting playing time. Maybe your child is on an elite team that wins every game, but he doesn’t get any playing time. Consider joining a lower-level team that emphasizes playing time. As we know, kids prioritize playing time over winning.
- Praise the recovery, don’t reprimand the mistake. Kids are going to make errors — and that’s one of the most important parts of youth sports. They need that space to learn how to fail and bounce back. Instead of reprimanding young athletes for messing up, adults can praise their ability to recover from their mistakes. This requires a mindset shift for parents and coaches alike.
- Give them back ownership of the game. Parents generally don’t stand over their kid’s shoulder when they are playing video games, so why do they scrutinize their athletes during sporting events? Let athletes play the game. If you find yourself wanting to shout out instructions from the stands, try yelling encouragement instead. Let them fail and succeed on their own.
The positive impact of sports
When young athletes do have a passion for sports, it can help them mentally, socially and psychologically as they develop, according to the Michigan Study of Adolescent Life Transitions. Plus, they’re eight times more likely to be active at age 24 than non-athletes.
Keeping the focus on your young athlete and their individual needs can help foster their passion for sports. After all, their happiness is more important than a trophy.