Putting the Fun Back in Youth Sport

Growing up, sport was always a part of my life. Pretty much from the time I could walk I had some kind of ball or something in my hands. Being the only girl on the street, I played with the boys and kept up in everything from road hockey to shooting hoops, to playing baseball, to soccer all day long.

I started playing organized sports at the age of seven. I played ringette in the winter and soccer or softball in the summer. I played in house leagues where we had games once a week and teams had kids of all different skill levels mixed together. When I was a little older, I chose to play on the competitive teams, but still also played house league once a week. At that time playing competitively meant adding a game once a week and maybe a couple of practices a month to the house league schedule. As a result, I looked forward to every outing and loved pretty much every minute of it. Because of this positive experience, I still participate in sport all year round as an adult.

Now as a mother of young children, I find myself wondering if sport will be as much a part of their lives as it has been mine. The sad thing is, even though I know how much I gained from playing sports, a big part of me hopes they won’t go down this path. This is simply because of the direction youth sports have taken in recent years. Somewhere along the line the fun has been taken out of it.

Seventy Percent of Kids Quit Organized Sport

Here is a sobering statistic. Seventy percent of kids quit playing organized sports by the age of thirteen. Seventy percent. Why do they quit? Most of them quit because it is quite simply not fun anymore. But how can that be? Surely kids playing sports is what fun is all about.

Well, this is no longer true when kids are out there sometimes six days a week and have no time for just hanging out with friends, when parents put ridiculous amounts of pressure on kids to perform because they have invested so heavily financially in the endeavor, when coaches are pushing a win at all costs attitude which sometimes involves ignoring or downplaying injuries, and when media hype tries to convince us that professional athletes are untouchable gods. Sport cannot possibly be compatible with fun with this kind of pressure.

Where Have All the House Leagues Gone?

If I look at my beloved sport of ringette for example, there is no longer any house league on a set day at a local arena where you can just sign up, show up, and play for whatever team to which you’ve been assigned. Instead, we start as young as seven years old tiering the players and subjecting them to tryouts (innocuously referred to as “assessment sessions”) where we tell them, “Sorry kid, you’re just not good enough for this team.” Then even if the child just wants to play at a recreational level, parents are forced to travel all over the region for games and tournaments several times a year. Not only does this make the sport exclusive to the middle and upper class, it pretty much eliminates kids from single parent families who have siblings who play sports since games days are totally unpredictable and inconsistent thus making transportation a limiting factor.

Young Children Playing Through Chronic Injury All Year Round

In my practice I have seen children as young as seven and eight years old playing through chronic injury. Kids are being pushed to ignore pain since it has simply been deemed unacceptable to miss that try out or playoff game. I have seen parents insisting that kids play despite being told by a health care practitioner that they could be risking permanent physical damage.

Pretty much every young athlete I have seen with chronic injury plays the same sport all year round. What happened to getting out of the rink and onto the pitch in the summer? Even Sidney Crosby advocates this approach, and there are several other NHL players that excelled at other sports. Playing the same sport all year and doing the same type of movements over and over is not good for a young developing body.

Stop the Craziness!

Where will all this craziness stop? Am I the only one seeing a problem here? With so many children going this route sometimes I feel very alone in going against the grain, so it was heartening to discover the Changing the Game Project. This movement was started by John O’Sullivan, a former professional athlete who has also coached at a very high level.   In his TEDx talk he describes how watching his young child play soccer opened his eyes to the current situation and brought him to the realization that adult pressure is ruining youth sport.

In this blog post O’Sullivan states that this adult driven hyper-competitive race to the top “is a race to nowhere and it does not produce better athletes. It produces bitter athletes who get hurt, burnout, and quit sports altogether”. He talks about how even families with a moderate approach to competitive sport get sucked into the pressure cooker of the all or nothing view. All of this despite the fact that “Any sports scientist or psychologist will tell you that in order to pursue any achievement activity for the long term, children need ownership, enjoyment and intrinsic motivation. Without these three things, an athlete is very likely to quit.

Join the Movement

If you feel even a little bit like youth sports have gone overboard, I urge you to check out the Changing the Game Project and join the movement to put the fun back in youth sport. I sincerely hope to be able to find a way for my children to enjoy all of the positive benefits of sport without succumbing to the craziness of the pressure cooker. In the long term, I know this will lead to them enjoying sport for life as I have.


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