What Happens When Kids Over-Participate In Sports?


photo by Central Virginia ASA News

There’s two trends happening in youth sports today—non-participation and over-participation. On one hand we have kids who are leaving sports in great numbers (see chart below). It’s a problem which many organizations are trying to address. Yet on the other, running parallel to this trend is over-participation, better known as specialization. In this instance kids are focusing on one sport to the exclusion of all others, playing  year-round, five or six days a week.

Readers with children under the age of 16 are likely quite familiar with this latter phenomenon.  It’s most evident by the growing number of club teams and travel leagues, often for kids as young as seven (Jayanthi et al., 2013). I can vouch for this not only with one of my three kids who specialized, but in a vivid example I witnessed when visiting Texas last year. I was staying at a hotel at same time as a group of young families who were there for weekend softball tournament. These ‘athletes’ were between the ages of five and six. The girls seemed more interested in running around the hotel and swimming in the pool than playing softball. I’ve no doubt that each family spent at least $500 for the weekend in travel costs; another outcome of specialization. It represents a significant commitment of family resources—time and money.

Kids Leaving Sports

The Current Sports Problem, nearly 3 million fewer kids played basketball, soccer, track and field, baseball, football, and softball. The Aspen Idea Blog [http://www.aspeninstitute.org/about/blog/7-charts-that-show-the-state-of-youth-sports-in-the-us-and-why-it-matters]

This phenomenon of over-participation represents a cultural shift, yet it’s also linked to the growing number of non-participating kids. Experts suggest that the youth sports system caters to meet the needs of the most talented kids, and to families willing and able to invest the needed resources (Rosenwald, 2015).  It seems almost inevitable that kids from middle-class neighborhoods are forced to choose a sport early on, usually one that the child shows the most potential for success. Forced may be too strong a word, yet it’s the path that seems fated.

Factors that influence specialization are complex, and include influences from parents, coaches and the system itself. It’s also the beginning of the journey where sports is no longer for fun, but to win. It’s no wonder that many kids end up quitting, or want to quit, but find it more difficult as they get older due to a complex set of factors that often include (overt or covert) pressure from parents, coaches, teammates and a sports-focused culture.

“It’s just about impossible to stand up to it if you want your kids to play competitively,” said Elizabeth Pelcyger, a Washington mom whose son felt pressure even from his baseball teammates because he wasn’t playing year-round.  — Are parents ruining youth sports? The Washington Post

The Risks/ Detrimental Effects
Just as there are risks associated with non-participation, such as obesity, health problems, poor performance in school, etc. there are other, less publicized effects due to sports specialization. Most of the negative risks documented in the research are ones that our family experienced with our one child that did specialize in one sport.  I share them here in an effort to raise awareness for families; not to be a downer or put a negative blanket over sports participation.

  • Burnout  — is considered to be part of the a group of negative conditions that include over-reaching and over-training. There’s three dimensions to burnout that include emotional exhaustion, de-personalization, and reduced performance (Maslach).
  • Higher rates of overuse injury — there a significantly elevated risks for injury once training volume exceeded 16 hours per week (Rose). Also one study found that 1 out of 5 of competitive elite athletes reported injury as the reason for quitting one’s sport (Butcher).
  • Adverse psychological stress  higher rates of anxiety, depression and poor emotional health reported among children who specialize at early ages (Jayanthi).
  • Poor eating habits recent research indicates the youth sport experience may exert a negative impact on food choices by athletes and families due to time constraints associated with practice, competitive and travel schedules leading to a reliance on fast food.

When examining the risks and detrimental effects documented (above), they do outweigh the benefits of sports involvement. But there is an optimal midway point between the two; a happy medium where kids experience the benefits of competition, teamwork and being active.  And kids don’t need to play one sport exclusively, six days a week, mostly year round with families spending hundreds of dollars yearly to experience the benefits.

Boys from theYonge Eglinton Neighbourhood mix it up with a little street hockey. The city is under pressure to drop the city wide ban on street hockey and Trustee Josh Matlow is heavily involved.Matlow in the middle of the street with boys as a car approaches..(June15 2010 )Rick Eglinton/Toronto Star.

Don’t underestimate the value of Informal sports, e.g. pick-up games like street hockey, baseball or others. Picture here of Boys in a Toronto neighborhood playing street hockey. (June15 2010 ) Rick Eglinton/Toronto Star.

What Parents Can Do
The Aspen Institute’s Project Play is just one program trying to change the culture, emphasize and healthy sports participation. They have a section dedicated to parents which is worth a read. Highlights below:

  • Try different sports individually and as a family. Research shows that the most active kids have the most active parents.
  • Ask your children about their goals and preferences in sports, then design activities accordingly. Redefine success on their terms. At the same time, know the odds against your child playing at the college or pro level, and commit to making athletes for life.
  • Advocate for children other than your own.  Join a local sport board and promote inclusive policies such as delaying the start of travel teams, adding fee waivers for low-income families, and committing to equal playing time through age 12.

Further Reading


  • Butcher J, Lindner KJ, Johns DP. (2002). Withdrawal from competitive youth sport: a retrospective ten-year study. Journal of Sport Behavior, v, 25(2), pp 145-163
  • Maslach C., Jackson S.E. (1984). Burnout in organizational settings. Journal of Applied Sociology, vol 5, pp. 133–153.
  • Jayanthi N.A., Dechert A, Durazo R, Luke A. (2011). Training and specialization risks in junior elite tennis players. Journal of  Medicine of  Science in Tennis, v. 16(1), pp 14-20
  • Rose, M.S., Meeuwisse WH., Sociodemographic predictors of sport injury in adolescents. Medicine & Science in Sports Exercise, v. Mar; 40(3), pp. 444-50.

Swimming Prodigy bucks the System…still sucessful

How many hours a week of swim practice does it take to get a shot at the Olympics? Fourteen, fifteen, how about twenty hours? Add dry land practice, and you’ll be well over twenty. If the swimmer is of high school age – even better, with summers off school, that means swimming 6 days a week with doubles [swimming twice daily] most days as well.

If you live in Southern California like I do, the mecca for competitive swim teams, the above scenario is likely what you’ll face with a child involved in the sport of swimming that goes one step beyond the recreational level.  Swim, sleep, eat, swim and repeat for six days a week. The seventh day is sleep and more sleep, or hit the beach and sleep. How NOT fun is that! For the swimmer, parents and family.

I read about seventeen year old Missy Franklin, from Denver – and her coach Todd Schmitz. My hope is that other coaches and parents can see that kids can have a life besides swimming [or whatever sport] and still be a successful athlete. Missy is the USA swim team darling and strong contender for the Olympic Swim Team- she’s got three gold medals and is a world champion in the 200 meter backstroke.

A Unique Approach….
What makes this story unique, is the coach’s and the parents approach to the sport and to the athlete – all of which seem to balance, come together to make it click for Missy so that swimming is not the focal point of her life, which allows her to be successful at her life, not just swimming.

Though, my guess is that most coaches will not be supportive, and this appears true…

“The insular world of international-class swimming sometimes rolls its eyes at Franklin. Her coach with the Colorado Stars, Todd Schmitz, isn’t famous. Her pools are scattered all over metro Denver. Her home state is a magnet for skiers, not swimmers.” (Henderson, 2011)

Unconventional Coaching
Two hour practices each day, six days a week, [we’re up to 12 hours now], oh yeah but summers? No Saturday practice in the summer, as Coach Schmitz believes kids should enjoy their summers. Really? OK, what about dry land? Well yes, dry land is important, twice a week. Wow.  Then I read that part of the strategy is adding ‘fun’ into the workouts…

Even when it comes to improving form—something other coaches regard as a strict science—Schmitz believes in the art of play … “A lot of this is about simply playing around in the water,” he said. “That’s what kids do naturally, and the play engages the mind and gives the swimmer the tools to figure out the right way to move their body.” (Futterman, 2011)

Having Fun – is that Allowed?
Is having fun really advisable for serious athletes? Shouldn’t it be hard work, pushing the limits, tiring the body to get better and better? Apparently, having fun is a critical component. In fact much research suggests that athletes of all ages, elementary age to high school athletes play sports to have fun, that’s the number one motivation. Not the scholarship potential, the prestige, but for fun.

I wish Missy the best – I hope she continues to swim as long as she enjoys it, and is still keeps her balance and shares her training story with others. Parents, coaches and young people need to see that success can come from balance, from a focus on fun, and by not succumbing to pressure from the ‘experts’. Missy’s parents had much advice, pressure even, to move Missy out of the small-scale swim team she was part of to swim with the big leagues (or should I say sharks).  They resisted, and Missy excelled.

Further Reading:
Why do you Play Sports?, The Players Survey