Burn Out in Youth Sports

Flame out or burn on for a lifetime of passion for movement, teamwork, and healthy living? This seems to be an essential question facing young families today - even though most hardly think about it. 

Personally, I think sports (and support of sport) has a place in our lives from early age on through geriatrics. Let's be real... It's more fun at any age to do something physical in the context of games or group fun than it is to grind away at the treadmill day after day. Given what we know today about the statistics of youth sports, it seems we can do better at keeping kids interest in sport. Let's talk about some numbers, some conclusions, and some recommendations that you can put into play today. 

Young boys playing soccer on a grass field

Photo by: Jarek Tuszyński / CC-BY-SA-3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

The Youth Picture

There are a lot of sports to choose from. Cheerleading is up 18.2% from 2008 with 775,000 kids playing. Track and Field is down 10% from 2008 with 307,000 kids participating. Soccer is down 3.3% from 2008 with 2,200,000 kids playing. While many sports are down from 2008 participation levels, many others are up - with a huge exception: kids are leaving at earlier ages. 

The average age of last regular participation for the game of soccer is 9.1 years old. 9.1 years old!! Kids turning 9 are just starting to get introduced to the real game. Why are these kids leaving before they ever really get started?!

Across all sports, kids are leaving by average age of 11. Just a few years ago, it was reported that 70% of kids in the US were leaving youth sports by age 14. Now it's 11?! What the heck is going on? Are these kids not having fun anymore? According to the latest Aspen Institute's Utah parent survey - reportedly not. 

What is Going On?!

The top reasons cited in the reading I've done include the following:

  • Specialization too early. Kids just want to play and have fun. Even if they're good at a sport, most kids want a chance to play other games. Multi-sport kids last longer in youth sports than single sport kids. Something to think about as we pull another few thousand bucks out of our pockets for super clubs and sexy uniforms. 
  • Too expensive. Cost is a factor. When mom and dad are always talking about how much youth sports costs (cause it costs a lot!), it puts pressure on kids. Youth sports becomes a job with expectations. They get plenty of that from schools. They don't want more from their play activities. 
  • Pressure from the sidelines. Speaking of pressure, let's face it... our sidelines are becoming a nightmare. Parents and coaches yelling like they're going to have a stroke if their kid doesn't win, or pass, or stop the ball, or make perfect set plays, or get's knocked down in the run of play. We all want our kids to be successful, but making mistakes and learning is a huge part of the youth game. Unforgiving sidelines make that impossible. Kid's don't want that. 
  • Professionalization of youth sports. When youth sports become more about winning games and entertaining the sidelines, well... you've heard me talk about this a lot in the past. The game ceases to be about the kids. This is their time. Sidelines need to leave them alone to enjoy their time. 

And It's Not Just the Kids

I'm a coach, an administrator, a 501(c)3 board chairman, a parent, a business owner, and a podcaster. I can speak from experience. Sometimes, I've had enough and need a break. Everything except for my business revolves around youth sports - from January to December. I'm sure you can relate! When we're running every weekend to get kids to games and swim meets. When we're working in the off season to secure permits, take inventory, repair equipment, set strategic direction, execute contracts, etc. etc. etc.; a rainy day might seem like a blessing. Vacations are too few and far between even when we're NOT involved in youth sports. Adding youth sports, volunteer work, shuttling kids, and cleaning astro-turf particles from the garage, mud room, car floor mats, and trunks, just adds to it. 

Parents and volunteers need a break. It's exhausting to run every day to practices, every weekend to games, and shuttle kids around to multiple sports. We do these things to support our kids. We love them and wouldn't trade it, but holy cow... sometimes, a break would be nice!

Avoiding Burnout

For the kids, there are many articles printed that help us figure out how to avoid burnout. The list is pretty consistent. Aspen Institute summarizes nicely:

  1. Ask kids what they want (see also articles previously published that highlight Norway's system)
  2. Re-Introduce free play (including low and no cost options)
  3. Encourage sports sampling 
  4. Train all coaches (age appropriate training, the true reason for the game, communication, development vs entertainment, etc)

What the Aspen Institute doesn't talk much about in their Don't Retire Kid program, but many other sites do (see Resources) is out-of-control parents, lack of respect, perversion of the game into sideline entertainment, and out of control costs.  

For Parents

Many hands make light work. The truth is too few volunteers are doing way too much work 12 months out of the year. If everyone pitched in a little, it would be so much easier to bring positive energy. 

For those who are doing all the work, take a break once in a while. Get out and go hiking spend some time with your OWN family, read a book, or just relax. Know that we're doing to best we can to balance the $17 B youth sports industry and keep low and no-cost playing options available to kids. Go out on a date night and celebrate the good work you do. 


Invite others to Join our Community!

The Soccer Sidelines

Soccer Dad, Coach, and Club President who is devoted to developing kids and their families. With a diverse background in leadership in other settings, David is focused on empowering parents, players, and coaches to focus on the stuff that really matters in youth sports.