Are Youth Sports Doing More Harm Than Good?

About 30 million children and teens participate in organized sports in the U.S. At younger ages than ever before, kids are starting sports and quickly ramping up to a level that’s often so demanding, it’s not sustainable for kids or their parents.

Youth sports are a major commitment of time and money. When parents and teens spend all of their leisure time focused on some aspect of the sport (practice, games, or fundraisers), they don’t have much time for other leisure activities. Couple that investment of time and money with visions of athletic scholarships, and it’s no surprise that sports have become a source of stress for our nation’s youth.

We lose sight of the physical and mental stress that playing sports can impose on a child. Teens who never have “downtime” can miss out on the opportunity to just be a kid.

Of course, there is a myriad of great reasons to participate in sports, including the following:

  • Have fun
  • Love of the sport
  • Learn discipline and teamwork
  • Gain confidence
  • See the results of hard work
  • Keep out of trouble
  • Get outdoors
  • Get to know other kids
  • Get exercise
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Improve physical conditioning and skills
  • Develop coordination
  • Get recruited and accepted to good schools
  • Athletic scholarships

With so many reasons to participate, the question isn’t whether or not children should participate, but how they can achieve balance so that sports continue to be fun. If they’re not, it’s time to reassess the role of sports in a child’s life.

The Growth of Club Sports

In the younger divisions of team sports, kids often start out on teams that are coached by parent volunteers. If your child has shown talent or interest, or even just really wants a prized club jacket, he may have moved on to club sports. Club sports have professional coaches, a club organization and, of course, the politics and price tag to go with them.

Interestingly, clubs are recruiting younger teams and kids at all skill levels, rather than just those that seem to show promise. This expansion raises the income base and the competition level and develops talent from a younger age. The rise in club sports rivals high school sports, which means teens may choose to only play club instead of being on a high school team, and focus on playing in club college showcase tournaments, attended by college scouts.

A byproduct of the growth of club sports is that there’s a whole cadre of paid professionals relying on these teams for income. They’re looking for dedication from their young athletes, so much so that it becomes difficult for athletes and their families to come up with the time or cash to fuel their teen’s interest.

Behind most club athletes, there’s a parent that drives them to practices and games and pays for the club administration, uniforms, tournaments, bus and air transportation, hotels, referees, turf fields, and “mandatory” fundraisers (the group targeted by the fundraisers is the parents themselves). These parents are invested. There’s a lot riding on the shoulders of these teens and they can wilt under the pressure.

The Trend Toward Year-Round Sports

Teens attend practice multiple times during the weekdays and play on weekends as well. After league play is over, there are tournaments, lessons, camps, clinics, off-season leagues, tryouts, and more. Some sports take place year-round, such as ice skating. There are always competitions to enter and routines to work out. Teens who only play a sport seasonally often can’t keep up with those who play a sport year-round.

Sports Injuries

Another result of the rise of teen sports is sports injuries. About 3.5 million children and teens, ages 5 to 14, experience sports injuries a year, and it’s widely believed that this number is on the rise. Almost one-third of childhood and teen injuries are sports-related:

  • Trauma – The highest injury rates are for sports where contact and collisions are common.
  • Overuse – Kids who do the same sport year-round experience more injuries than if they had cross-training to develop complementary muscle groups and their muscles had a chance to repair themselves between workouts.
  • Misuse – Misuse relates to poor technique. Even though your child is on a team, she may not have received the personal attention to correct her technique.

Upping the Ante with Private Coaching

A lot of teens in sports now have private coaches. Do you hear the “cha-ching” of the cash register already? When parents are doling out $40 to $80 per hour for private lessons, inevitably, the teen feels pressure to perform. When the parents’ primary activity outside of work is to drive their child to and attend games or competitions, that becomes the parents’ world as well. As a result, they become “experts,” coaching their kids from home, if not the sidelines.

Helping Your Teen Cope With Stress

If your teen is stressed about sports, or if their schoolwork is suffering as a result of the pressure, it’s time to rebalance their priorities. Here are some options:

Play at a Lower Level

It may seem odd to choose to play on the “B” team instead of the “A” team, but maybe that would allow your child to develop greater leadership skills and confidence. The same goes for high school; junior varsity may be preferable to varsity. And on junior varsity, you may find that your child gets more playing time.

Reduce the Number of Teams Your Child Is On

If your child is overextended, look at ways to dial it down. For example, your child may want to quit the club and just play on a high school team or reduce the number of teams he plays on.

Play Sports Seasonally

Don’t let different sports encroach on different seasons. For example, if your child swims during the summer and drops team sports during that period, don’t get pressured into allowing the sports to overlap. In the case of swimming, you may find that it is such great conditioning that your child will restart the season in better shape.

Make it Fun

If your teen isn’t having fun anymore, figure out how to bring back that initial joy. As enjoyable as it is for parents to watch their child play sports, the child’s enjoyment of the sport may be getting lost.

Help Your Child Keep Perspective

Your child may be the best on their team or in a competition, but help her keep in mind that a professional life in sports is a long shot. She needs to study, too, to keep her other options open. This will also help your child to bounce back from sports losses.

Set an Example

If parents set a good example by keeping sports fun, that will go a long way in helping kids do the same. Stress is wasted energy and can undermine performance. So for the good of your child and his sports performance, it’s a win-win for both of you to take a deep breath and remember that it really is just a game.


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