A recent survey by Utah State University and the Aspen Institute found that the average child today spends less than three years playing a sport and quits by age 11. One of the reasons? Kids just aren’t having fun in sports anymore.
That’s a major problem when sports, like faith, has the incredible ability to advance our children’s moral, emotional and holistic development.
It’s not the first time youth sports burnout has gotten media attention. In 2018, The New York Times noted that, “the concept of free play has since yielded to… hopes for glory among many of today’s parents” and quoted a medical professional who said that “parental influence on sports specialization can be profound.” A 2015 Huffington Post article linked burnout with “achievement by proxy syndrome,” blaming parents for “living vicariously through the exploits of their children.” Other headlines are asking, “Have parents ruined sports for kids?” and blaming youth sports burnout on “overbearing parents,” and “pushing too hard too young.”
In an interview with ESPN, even Kobe Bryant commented on the trend: “Sports used to be something that kids go out and do for fun,” he said. “But now, it's become so regimented, where parents are starting to inject their own experiences, or past failures if you will, onto their children.”
Youth burnout is often linked to an increase in parental pressure. But whatever the reason for it, one thing is clear: If we want our kids to stay in sports, we have to make sports fun again. And that has to start with a compassionate, empathetic mindset focused on supporting parents instead of blaming them.
As the executive director of a Christian youth sports organization, I can tell you that most parents’ hearts are in the right place. Most of the parents being blamed for burnout are actually loving, well-intentioned people who care deeply about their children’s wellbeing. After all, no one intentionally leads their child into injury or depression. The problem is that parents have been ill-guided and ill-informed when it comes to athletic programs. They’ve heard advice that isn’t conducive to developing well-rounded success.
For one thing, they’ve heard that starting a child early in one-sport specialization will lead to a college scholarship down the road. That simply isn’t true. Most current Division I college athletes and professionals don’t actually specialize in their younger years. Parents have also heard that the more time a kid puts into sports, the better they’ll be. But genetics and personal motivation play a greater role in predicting success than time commitment.
These are some of the reasons church leaders are developing sports programs in their communities. Sports can be a powerful ministry, but it works the other way too – a focus on faith values can remind kids, parents and coaches what’s really important about the game.
Whether or not their child’s league has a faith component, parents should be looking at sports as a way to teach young kids how to be well-rounded people and total athletes. Winning every game doesn’t achieve this; kids also need to learn how to lose gracefully. They need to understand how competition can be healthy and fun. And parents should see how sports can be a way to make friends, learn balance and coordination, encourage positive body image and develop physically, socially, mentally and spiritually. These are life-lessons that benefit a child as they mature into the workforce, community and family life.
This goes back to a time when neighborhood kids used to get together in empty lots for pick-up games of football or soccer. No one was coaching, parents weren’t on the sidelines, and no one played if they didn’t want to be there. It was just a bunch of kids having fun.
Positive parenting means letting the coaches do the coaching; not framing success in terms of winning and failure in terms of losing; allowing children to play multiple sports; applying faith lessons to sports; limiting the hours of practice for young kids; and talking about what was fun on the ride home, instead of what went right or wrong.
Let’s start giving parents who only want the best for their kids the benefit of the doubt. Instead of casting blame, let’s support them by dispelling the myths of youth sports and educating each other about the benefits of focusing on the journey instead of the destination. Let’s not lose sight of the greater purpose of kids’ sports.
Bill Palmer is executive director of Upward Sports.