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.

What Makes a Youth Sports Coach GREAT?


Inspiring • fair •  skilled • trustworthy—words that describe a great coach. Last week I wrote about Bully Coaches; this week I look at the flip side, the awesome coach. I was inspired to write about what makes a coach great (if not outstanding) after reading an article in the WSJ about  a former Division I college basketball coach Jerry Wainwright who sends 300 to 500 handwritten notes with inspirational messages each week to former players, other coaches and managers.  Wainwright carefully chooses the message (usually it’s a quote), that is personally relevant to the recipient. Pretty awesome!

Granted, not all coaches can send handwritten messages, but there are other traits and actions that make a coach great, that go beyond being fair and skilled. I share here profiles of three outstanding coaches; real coaches that two of my three kids had over the years of playing sports in club, varsity and house leagues.  I describe what made these coaches great—my aim is to recognize coaching behaviors that bring out the best in kids, not just as athletes but as individuals.

Three Outstanding Coach Profiles

1. Take One for The Team. Both my sons played house league hockey—which meant a different volunteer coach each season. For the most part, they were all good. Though Coach Tom, the coach of my oldest son’s team when he was 16, was different—he walked the talk of the saying, ‘there’s no ‘I’ in team.  The team consisted mediocre players at best (of which my son was one), though there were two talented club players who played house league that season for fun.  Yet Coach Tom treated all players equal—focused not on individuals, but the team; he acknowledged assists more than the goals, gave equal playing time across the board, and curtailed ‘puck hogs’ by making the ‘hog’ sit out a shift or two. It was all about the team—no megastars allowed. Over the season, the team’s progress was stellar.  And this team, the team that Tom built, much to everyone’s surprise (except Tom’s) won the league championship.

2.  Coaching Winners. Another team (same son) house league again—with players aged 13 to 14 years old, covered the spectrum in terms of skill and ability. Players who had just learned to play hockey, to ones with tough family situations, including one boy who drove himself to practice (with a hardship driver’s license).  It’s no wonder the team lost—a lot. Yet it didn’t phase their coach. Coach Rob was positive, upbeat, supportive, and tried different hockey drills at every practice that must have needed the patience of a saint.

What made Coach Rob outstanding was not just his patience and positive attitude, but how Rob recognized each kid’s situation and figured out how the team could help that player. With our son it was providing confidence, for another it was playing hockey even though his single-mom couldn’t pay for it (Rob raised funds from other families to cover the boy’s expenses), for another it was a way to stay out of trouble. For Coach Rob it was not about coaching to win championships, but about giving each player a chance to win just by playing.

3. Individuals first—Students second—Athletes third.  My youngest son played varsity golf in high school. High school sports are tough, because even though NCAA guidelines state that academics come first, it doesn’t always work out that way. Golf especially is not a sport conducive to academics when during the season kids can miss one to two almost-full days of school to drive long distances to golf courses and play 18 holes. It wasn’t uncommon for my son to get home at 8 pm or later. Yet the two coaches walked-the-talk that academics came first—my son often would ask to miss a tournament if he had a math test, or a heavy work-load for that week. He wasn’t afraid to ask—there was never an issue. Another varsity player’s parents worked with the coaches to help get their son’s grades up by the coaches having the player sit out several tournaments, even though his GPA technically allowed him to play.

The coaches stressed time and again that golf was just a game, it wasn’t about winning, but playing with integrity, and bringing that integrity to school, to life.  My son had a tough decision in his junior year, to play on the golf team or start a (unsanctioned) bike team. One of the golf coaches mentored him through the decision; ‘follow your passion’ was his advice, do what you love, and do it with integrity. My son didn’t play golf that season and started “Hart Racing’.  He found his passion. Thank you Coach!

There are many, many good youth sports coaches and a handful of GREAT coaches that can have a significant impact on our kids not just as athletes, but as individuals.  These are the coaches to recognize, acknowledge and thank.  THANK YOU!


Parents Spend More Money on Youth Sports than Saving for College

iStock_000002308797XSmallHaving children is expensive; and these kids of ours—as cute as they are, require a significant amount of resources. I saw a sign in my bank the other day that said ‘Do you know it takes $241,080 to raise a child?’  Really. And that’s only up to the age of 18, which means the $241,080 doesn’t include money for college. Add another hundred thousand or so for college or university, at least. Caching ($). If you have more than one child, Caching, Caching ($$), and if more three kids [or more] like I do then it’s… a lot ($$$). Let’s just say it takes vast sums of the green stuff to raise a family.

Coincidently, on the same day that I spotted the sign I read an article reporting on a survey that found parents are putting a priority on spending for their kids’ sports [in this case hockey] rather than saving for their kids’ college education. It went on to say that many parents are dipping into their retirement savings to fund their kids’ extracurricular activities.

“Among the most surprising findings, Lewis said, was that 61 per cent of parents said they, or someone they know, borrowed money or used retirement savings to put a child through hockey or another extracurricular.”


“Fewer than half of Canadians are saving for a post-secondary education,” Lewis said, citing federal statistics that 45 per cent of households have RESPs. “It’s the contrast of those two … They’re [parents] prepared to go into debt to fund an extracurricular activity, and at the same time aren’t actually setting aside the money for their child’s post-secondary education.“  Cary Mills, Ottawa Citizen

Granted this article is from a Canadian newspaper, and features Canadian statistics [RESP’s are equivalent to 529 plans in the United States] however there are thousands of U.S. families in the same boat. I know many families that spend thousands of dollars each year on their children’s sports activities; expenses are not just high for participation but it’s the travel expenses that add up to the thousands.

College_graduate_studentsThen There’s College…
Unfortunately there are few families that have the yearly income to support the costs associated with competitive sports, and putting money aside each year for their kids’ college education. Higher education is not cheap as parents are fully aware. According to the College Board in the US, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2012–2013 school year was $29,056 at private colleges, $8,655 for state residents at public colleges, and $21,706 for out-of-state residents attending public universities. In Canada the average university tuition fees for one year are far less than in the United States, $5,581 per year [on average]. These fees are for tuition only, and when adding room and board, books, etc. the numbers are substantially more.

Is college/university worth it?  Even though there has been much discussion lately about the value of a college education, the employment wage statistics say absolutely yes.  Over a lifetime an individual with a college education [either a two-year or four-year degree] will earn considerably more than someone with only a high school education (Bureau of Labor Statistics).  For instance, students with a bachelor’s degree make 84% more over a lifetime than high school graduates.  

All this to say, that one of the best things parents can do for their children to set them up to be independent and successful adults is to ensure that they attend some form of higher education—whether it be for a vocational diploma from a two-year institution, an associate degree from a public college, or a four-year undergraduate education. Preparing our children for college requires more than finances, which I’ll address in another article, however having the financial resources and a funding plan is critical.

What About Sports Scholarships?
One argument parents put forth for spending money on youth sports, [especially club sports where a child is vested in the sport and is very good at it] is that the child has a chance of earning a sports scholarship that will pay for college. The rationale is to invest the money now in the child and get the payback later via a sports scholarship. Yes, it is possible, however the odds are not in favor of getting a full scholarship that will pay for even the majority of the costs associated with attending college. It’s a utopian dream for most. The statistics are not favorable for the average high school athlete that plays a varsity sport, even if they are at the top of their game. Only about 2 percent of high school athletes win sports scholarships every year at NCAA colleges and universities. There is an excellent article in the NYT that provides some statistics, and I’ve included a link below that outlines the number of scholarships schools [by division] are allowed to grant each year. Here is a snippet from the NYT articles:

“Excluding the glamour sports of football and basketball, the average N.C.A.A. athletic scholarship is nowhere near a full ride, amounting to $8,707. In sports like baseball or track and field, the number is routinely as low as $2,000. Even when football and basketball are included, the average is $10,409. Tuition and room and board for N.C.A.A. institutions often cost between $20,000 and $50,000 a year.” (NYT)

Raising children is expensive—yet saving for kids college education is one of the best expenditures parents can make during their kids 0 to 18 years, while spending on youth sports…not so much. Knowing the facts can help parents make good decisions about their kids well-being, and future.