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Why kids ditch youth sports

"Fun" is a key element of good youth sports programs

Kids join youth sports programs in droves -- and drop out in droves. Twenty million to 30 million 6- to 18-year-olds participate in youth sports programs, but around 80 percent opt out by the age of 12.

Coaching and the "fun factor" contribute to this attrition rate, say Indiana University coaching experts. Kids join such programs largely to have fun -- and they drop out when it's no longer fun. Pressure and competition need to take a back seat to the development of fundamental skills and enjoyment.

"In this country, we often use a 'warm body approach' in youth sport coaching," said David Gallahue, dean of IU Bloomington's School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation and co-author of Understanding Motor Development: Infants, Children, Adolescents, Adults (McGraw Hill, 2006).

In other words schools and recreation programs in the U.S. frequently resort to taking what they can get, often turning to well intentioned but ill prepared parents with little or no coaching experience to work with young athletes. Countries such as Canada, Australia and Great Britain require youth coaches to have certain levels of certification. If no certified coaches are available, no teams are created.

Coaches and parents should take as much pressure off of the kids as possible, because undue pressure can drive young athletes away from the sport prematurely.

"Parents and coaches should not attempt to live out their own fantasies and shortcomings through their children," said track and field expert Phillip Henson, who helps coordinate the coaching minor degree program in HPER's Department of Kinesiology. "The primary purpose of youth sports is to have fun."

Gallahue, who has advised USA Gymnastics and U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association on coaching education, and Henson, who directed the field events at the 1996 Olympic Games, offered the following suggestions to parents and coaches:

  • Parents should look for the narrowest age range possible, with two-year spans being preferable. Kids who are closer in age get along better. They have similar physical, social and cognitive development levels, although their skill levels could vary widely.
  • Very few sports require athletes to specialize before the age of 10 to be really good. For sports such as gymnastics, figure skating, diving and alpine skiing, early specialization may be a plus. Just about everything else requires no such early specialization, Gallahue said.
  • The primary focus in youth sports should be on developing skills, not just on competition. Children do not automatically acquire basic skills such as swimming, throwing, bouncing and balancing -- skills that can lead to more specific sport skills, such as throwing a baseball or dribbling a basketball, Gallahue said. They need the time and space to practice, as well as quality instruction and positive encouragement. The bulk of youth sports, even at the middle school and high school levels, should focus on developing skill and tactics, he said, with a growing proportion of the time devoted to actual competition. In the early years, for example, 80 to 90 percent of the practice time should be devoted to skill development, with this decreasing to 40 to 60 percent in the later years.
  • Helping children find success is key to making youth sports fun. Parents and coaches should help kids set realistic goals -- such as achieving a personal best -- that do not hinge on winning or losing a match.
  • Children should not be treated like miniature adults.
  • Attempt to take as much pressure off of the children as possible. This includes pressure to win, or to "be the best." Value needs to be placed on the needs of the children not the performance.
  • New coaches can find coaching resources at Human Kinetics (, a publisher of sports and physical activity media.