Why is Youth Sports Participation Decreasing?

, ,

By Jordan Nonte, MSW, LSW – February 21, 2024

There are many factors impacting sports and athletes today, including social media, cost to participate, time commitment, and hyper competitiveness. I think anyone could make the argument that sports help kids develop many skills that can benefit them in adulthood. However, since sports culture has been evolving, are the benefits outweighing the costs?

According to the Aspen Project, in 2018, 38 percent of children participated in an organized sport, down from 45 percent in 2008. According to the MedPage Today, research has found that early or overspecialization in sports, or playing the same sport for 8 months or more per year, has increased injuries and burnout.

Meanwhile, parents are paying big money for their child to participate in some programs, on top of gear and travel. These high costs may cause parents to put more pressure on teams to succeed. Some parents may be expecting their children to obtain athletic scholarships for college, also increasing an athlete’s pressure to compete.

Demanding schedules can cause overuse injuries, resulting in medical bills and worried parents, causing further stress and anxiety on young athletes. These stressors may pressure kids to play through the pain or return to a sport before their injury has fully healed.

When kids try out for a sport, their main goal is usually to “have fun.” They are expecting to make new friends, develop skills in a sport, and get some mentorship from a coach. As time goes on and the stakes get higher, this may evolve into burnout from a packed schedule, guilt from parents’ financial contributions and time commitment, stress from an injury, anxiety to earn a scholarship, and ultimately, pressure to win. Many times, older athletes are completely basing their value as a person on their ability to compete in a sport.

So what do we do to prevent this? An athlete’s enjoyment in a sport largely contributes to whether or not they will stick with it. So how can we make sports fun again for athletes?

What about if we check in with our athletes as parents and coaches? We might ask questions like, “What are you hoping to get out of this season?”  “What would you like to see happen?” “How can I support you?”

It might mean, as a parent, leaving the coaching to the coaches and not coaching from the stands or coaching on the way to and from games, or cutting out the travel season and just competing during the school season. As a coach it might mean cutting back on the two-a-day practices, having a team bonding day or outing, incorporating fun games into practice, or giving a day off.

And for both parties, it might mean prioritizing fun and skill building over winning. Overall, having positive and encouraging conversations with athletes and checking in is a must.

Unfortunately, there is no black and white answer. What works for one athlete may not work for all. Every athlete is an individual, trying to thrive with different dynamics of parents, coaches, and teammates. How they are doing and feeling about a sport depends on many factors.

Therefore, I’ll leave you with this. Check in with your athletes whether you are a parent or coach. Take time to talk with them one-on-one and really listen to their hopes as well as their burdens. From there, assist them in coming up with some options to find relief, address an issue, or maybe sign up for another sport. We won’t know the answer until we have these conversations and show our athletes that we are there to listen, support, and help them make the best decisions for their mind, body, and spirit. Maybe then, we will see more kids joining sports again, and more importantly, having fun!