Oct 30

Why Are Tweens Leaving Youth Sports? – Part I

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Children and Youth Are Not Professional Athletes OR Miniature Adults

It is important to understand not only the reasons children and youth participate in sports but also the reasons for their dropout. As early as 1988, researchers estimated the annual dropout rate at about 35% though some dropouts participate in another sport (example: swimming to soccer) while others leave the sport completely (Gould & Petlichkoff, 1988).

According to a poll from the National Alliance for Youth Sports around 70 percent of kids in the United States stop playing organized sports by the age of 13 because “it’s just not FUN anymore.” In 1990, the Athletic Footwear Association (AFA) released its findings titled “American Youth and Sports Participation” of children and youth’’ (ages 10-18 years) and their feelings of personal sports involvement. The study included more than 10,000 young people from 11 cities across the U.S.A. The results show that (a) participation in organized sports declines sharply as youngsters get older, (b) “FUN” is the key reason for involvement and “lack of FUN” is one of the primary reasons for discontinuing, (c) winning plays less of a role than most adults would think, and (d) not all athletes have the same motivations for their involvement.

According to recent findings, 7 out of 10 players quit organized sports by the age of 13. A Michigan study cited in my University lecture series “Children and Parents in Sport” cited 10 reasons for sports dropout. The #1 reason was still “lack of FUN,” stated equally by both boys and girls! Recently, a 9-year old boy went before TV cameras and YouTube, declaring “he was quitting sport because the “pressure to ‘win at all cost’ by coaches and parents was too much to take.” 

“I just can’t take it anymore coach,” a talented but underperforming player named Kate told me a few years back. I think I am done playing. It’s my dad. He loves me and I know he only wants the best for me, but he just can’t stop coaching me, in the car, and from the sideline each and every game. I can’t play when he is around, and he insists on coming to every game, every road trip, you name it. It’s like it’s more important to him than it is to me” (O’Sullivan, 2015).

I titled the photo above ‘Child Labor in Sports’ because of the continuous pressure by coaches and parents, and the endless hours of year-round training! In addition, the persisting phrase of  “No pain – No gain” and the continuous imitation of the professional model and its “win at all cost” philosophy are prominent in many children and youth sports. It is 2019… have we not learned anything over the past 20 years?I

Here are the 11 most cited Reasons from the Michigan study

Schlots:Users:monikaschloder:Desktop:News Months:10 Oct:Jpgs:DevAge.jpg

Let’s change the traditional way of thinking! The athlete-centered and developmental versus chronological age model is needed to start reversing these statistics. The respective ages of athletes and the natural characteristics of each age group is the foundation to develop the physical, technical, psychological, social, and age-appropriate tactical skills. This means coaches need to know the specific capabilities in those domains. Otherwise, the FUN element is lost and dropout occurs, currently at the highest levels ever. 

Overall, 6-11 and 11-14 year olds see themselves at the so-called ‘participatory – instructional stage.’ FUN, fundamental skills, and fitness are the primary objectives with the focus on skill display and personal improvement. Competition should be exciting but foremost stress-free not based on ‘winning at all cost’ (professional model). ‘Learning to compete’ is the important part at this stage (the TLC triad: Teaching – Learning – Competing) as discussed by Schloder and McGuire in early 1998. 

The upper end of this age group, on the other hand, functions in the more transitional paradigm. Athletes first develop fundamental skills and then refine these skills. They learn to establish short-and long-term goals, set strategies, and racing/competition/ game tactics. Even though competition takes place on a more elevated level it is still kept in ‘perspective’, and should be interpreted as a positive experience. 

In early competitions, the focus should be on reproducing skills and techniques in competition/games as refined in training. In essence, competitive events should be determined by training effects, which have been consistently and successfully demonstrated in practice. Competitive stress is minimized if athletes feel competent, are familiar and comfortable with their performance. If initial competition is an unpleasant experience, the potential exists to develop the attitude of not liking competing because the experience may be interpreted negatively.

Many sport psychologists argue that high-intensity competition is not recommended until the later years (age 15 and up). At this point, athletes are emotionally and cognitively more ready for serious-type competition. They are also psychologically more capable to deal with the ‘idea of winning and losing.’ Given all the considerations, coaches should, therefore, endorse the ‘athlete-centered’ program more passionately.

Overall, the athlete-centered model operates with a focus on FUN, development, and commitment versus an upside-down professional model based on ‘winning at all cost.’ The former helps to develop and foster athletes’ self-image through a positive learning and training environment that creates happiness, self-satisfaction, encouragement, motivation, and one that increases and fosters personal relationships as well as encourages and enhances performance, and the attainment of personal goals.

I share the following parental perspective by Juliana Miner (Washington Post, June 1, 2016) – with modification – to demonstrate the dismal status in current children and youth sports. Miner has 3 children who play sports – the oldest turned 13 in 2016. 

From Juliana Miner (June 1, 2016):

…I may not have understood why this was happening a few years ago, but sadly, knowing what I know now, the mass exodus of 13-year-olds from organized sports makes perfect sense to me. 

 “It’s not FUN anymore” isn’t the problem; it’s the combination of a number of cultural, economic and systemic issues that result in our kids turning away from organized sports at a time when they could benefit from them the most. Playing sports offers everything from physical activity, experiencing success and bouncing back from failure to taking calculated risks and dealing with the consequences of working as a team and getting away from the ubiquitous presence of screens. Our middle-school teens need sports now more than ever.

Here are the reasons I think it’s become less FUN for kids to play sports, and the early dropout (Miner, 2016):

It’s Not FUN anymore – because it’s Not designed to be FUN

…As children get closer to high school, the system of youth sports is geared toward meeting the needs of more competitive players, and subsequently expectations increase. The mentality is common that most of the kids who quit at 13 are the ones who wouldn’t make a varsity team in high school anyway! Those who ‘stick around’ find that being on a team demands a greater commitment of time and effort. It also means being surrounded by people who care very much about the outcome. This results in the potential of experiencing disappointment or being the cause of it. There is nothing wrong with any of that because it can teach incredibly important lessons about hard work, resiliency, and character – but it’s not for everyone…(Miner, 2016)

Our Culture No Longer Supports Older Kids Playing for FUN 

…The pressure to raise “successful” kids means that we expect them to be the best. If they’re not, they’re encouraged to cut their losses and focus on areas where they can excel. If a seventh-grader doesn’t make a select soccer team, he/she starts to wonder if maybe it’s time to quit altogether, convinced not reaching that highest level, it might not be worth doing. For the small minority of kids at an elite level and loving it, the idea of quitting in middle- school is probably unthinkable. However, for everyone else, there are fewer opportunities to play, a more competitive and less developmental environment in which to participate, and lots of other things competing for their time after school…(Miner, 2016)

Push to Specialize and Achieve at the Highest Possible Level

…Increasingly kids are pressured to “find their passion” and excel in that area (be it music, arts, sports, etc.). There are certainly those for whom this is true, but it is not the norm. For many, there’s a strong argument against this trend, because the message is essentially to pick one thing and specialize in it (to the exclusion of pursuing other interests). For young athletes, early specialization can be harmful in terms of long-term injuries, and it does little to increase the overall chances of later collegiate or professional success…(Miner, 2016)

…Perhaps more importantly, the underlying message that “I have to be the best or I’ve failed” is deeply harmful to kids. This is absolutely mirrored and reinforced in school, where the environment is increasingly test and outcome-driven. Sports could be pivotal in teaching kids ways to fail and recover, something that educators and parents see as being desperately needed. In privileged Washington, D.C., suburbs such as Fairfax and Montgomery counties (and in others across the country), teenagers find themselves stressed to the point of developing anxiety and depression. We see unhealthy coping behaviours and increased rates of self-harm and suicide. This is not a sport’s problem – it’s a culture problem…(Miner, 2016)

There is Cost to be Competitive – Not Everyone is willing or able to pay it

For kids, playing at a more competitive level may mean to prioritize their commitments, interests, and work tirelessly. They may have to be able to deal with pressures of participating at a higher level. These can be positive – provided the playing environment is a ‘healthy’ one. Still, other factors may contribute to a young athlete’s ability to compete or seen as competitive…

…Training year-round, expensive equipment, individual coaching, camps, tournaments and participation on travel and select teams in many places are no longer really considered “optional” to achieve success in youth sports, at least not heading into high school. The investment of time and money that is required is substantial, which contributes to an environment whereby kids of lower-income or single-parent families are simply ‘shut out’ of the game. (Miner, 2016)

…And…of course, it’s just the age

At age 13, kids generally find themselves with more (and more challenging) school work. Most are also encouraged to start choosing their interests and in what they’re best at. There’s no longer time for them to do as much as in elementary school…(Miner, 2016)

…Some of the major social and emotional changes that 13-year-olds experience also predispose them to make decisions such as quitting sports, especially as that environment becomes more competitive. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes it on its developmental milestones page as a “focus on themselves… going back and forth between high expectations and lack of confidence.” Kids become more focused on- and influenced by their friends who are also leaving organized youth sports…(Miner, 2016)

…Any discussion about being 13 also needs to include social media, smartphones and the Internet. According to the Pew Center’s Internet Research Study, most U.S. kids receive their first cellphone or wireless device by the age of 12. Between the ages of 13 and 17, 92 percent of teens report being online every day, and 24 percent are online “almost constantly.” As kids become teenagers, their priorities change. The way they socialize, study and spend their time is also affected…(Miner, 2016)

There are no easy answers. The system of youth sports is set up to cater to more elite players as they approach high school, leaving average kids with fewer opportunities. Our culture encourages specialization and achievement, which actively discourages kids from trying new things or just playing for fun. All of this converges at a time when they’re going through major physical, emotional and social changes as well as facing pressure to pare down their interests and focus on school…(Miner, 2016)

…So, why do 70 percent of kids quit organized sports at 13 and what can we do about it? I would argue that most kids leave because we haven’t given them a way to stay. Perhaps more importantly, until we dismantle the parenting culture that emphasizes achievement and success over healthy, happy kids, we don’t stand a chance of solving this problem…(Miner, 2016)


Engle, J. (2019, May 1). Are youth sports too competitive? The New York Times. The Learning Network. Retrieved September 30, 2019, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/01/learning/are-youth-sports-too-competitive.html

Gould, D., Feltz, D., Horn, T., & Weiss, M. (1982). Reasons for attrition in competitive youth swimming. Journal of Sport Behavior, 5(3), 155-165. September.

Gould, D., & Petlichkoff, L. (1988). Participation and attrition in young athletes. In F.L. Smoll, R.A. Magill, & M.J. Ash (Eds.). Children in Sport (3rd ed.), (pp. 161-178). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Hedstrom, R., & Gould, D. (2004). Research in youth sports: Critical issues status. White Paper summary of the existing literature. Institute for the Study of Youth Sports. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University. Retrieved October 19, 2019, from http://www.hollistonsoccer.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/CriticalIssuesYouthSports-2.pdf

Miner, J. (2016, June 1). Why 70 percent of kids quit sports by age 13. Washington Post. Parenting.

Monteiro, D., Cid, L., Almeida Marinho, D., Moutão, J., Vitorino, A., & Bento, T. (2017). Determinants and Reasons for Dropout in Swimming – Systematic Review. Sports 5(50), 3-13. DOI: 10.3390/sports5030050

Neefs, J. (2016, June 28). Kids quitting sports: What’s behind the startling statistics. Retrieved September 30, 2019, from https://activeforlife.com/kids-quitting-sports-stats/

O’Sullivan, J. (2017). Why kids play sports. Changing the Game Project. Problems in Youth Sports. January 9. Retrieved October 21, 2019, from https://changingthegameproject.com/kids-play-sports/

O’Sullivan, J. (2015). Why kids quit sports. Changing the Game Project. Coaching, Problems in Youth Sports, Sports Parenting. Retrieved October 21, 2019, from https://changingthegameproject.com/why-kids-quit-sports/

Petlichkoff, L.M. (1992). Youth sport participation and withdrawal: Is it simply a matter of FUN? Pediatric Exercise Science, 4(2), 105-110. Retrieved October 19, 2019, from https://journals.humankinetics.com/view/journals/pes/4/2/article-p105.xml

Salguero, A., Gonzales-Boto, R., Tuero-del-Prado, C., & Márquez, S. (2003). Identification of dropout reasons in young competitive swimmers. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 43(4), 530-534. December.

Schloder, M.E. (2006). Lecture Series. Sociology of Sport: Children and parents in sport. Calgary, AB, Canada. University of Calgary. 

Weiss, M.R., & Petlichkoff, L.M. (1989). Pediatric Exercise Science, 1(3), 195-211. Children’s motivation for participation in and withdrawal from sport: Identifying the missing links. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1123/pes.1.3.195

Retrieved October 19, 2019, from https://journals.humankinetics.com/view/journals/pes/1/3/article-p195.xml

Zentner, C., & Mann, M. (Ed.)(2014). Shifting perspectives: Transition from coach-centered to athletes challenges faced by a coach and athlete. The Journal of Athlete Centered Coaching, 1(2). October 1. Denton, TX: Summit Edu Publishing. Retrieved October 22, 2019, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/266319243_Shifting_perspectives_Transitioning_from_coach_centred_to_athlete_centred_-_challenges_faced_by_a_coach_and_athlete

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