The Stress of Youth Sports

Why three out of four kids hate sports by age 13.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on March 01, 2004
5 min read

With childhood obesity reaching alarming rates, kids need to exercise more. But with the advent of travel teams and specialization in a single sport -- not to mention overly excited parents and coaches patrolling the sidelines -- many youngsters are being driven out of organized sports.

If you ask the kids, they will say they like to play with other kids and have fun. "They also like to get a new, shiny uniform," says Rick Wolff, chairman of the Center for Sports Parenting, at the University of Rhode Island. Striving for a personal best is also a thrill for young people, moving the ball down the field, beating their best time on the track or in the pool.

"Yet if you ask the coach what the objective is," Wolff says, "he (or she) may say, 'To win.'"

"You hear all kinds of stuff," says Tom Connellan, author of Bring Out the Best in Others! 3 Keys for Business Leaders, Educators, Coaches, and Parents. "You can have a field of 7-year-olds who can't even figure out the direction to run on the field and the coach will be red in the face, shouting, 'Run, damn it, you guys are killing me here!' What way is that to talk to little kids? They get driven to the sidelines and out of organized sports."

Coaches also have been known to tell kids to throw a game so as to be paired with a weaker team the next round in a tournament. "Some may call that winning," writes power skater Laura Stamm on the Sports Parenting Center's web site. "But I call it losing."

Another mother says she heard a father yell at his daughter: "That was six mistakes in a row. Get your head together or you are going to hear about this at home!"

"When I was growing up, there were no travel teams," Wolff says. "Kids played football in fall, baseball in summer, two or three sports sometimes. Now all that has changed." Travel teams, he says, are a full-time commitment. "Coaches don't want to hear that you can't make practice because someone has a birthday party." Connellan points out that you can be driving all over the state almost every weekend for months at a time.

Travel teams also are deadly serious. Sometimes only the most talented kids get to play -- the others just get to ride the bus. What does your kid think of that? What do you think of that?

Coaches also can be overbearing. "You can't treat a little kid like you would an NBA player," Connellan says. "Too many coaches coach the way they were coached or follow a role model from college or pro ball. "Remember, those higher level coaches have a long relationship with that player. They have the best of intentions, but kids take gentler handling and more sensitivity."

Like many parents, Connellan got into coaching himself so his child could play soccer (most travel team coaches have a child in the game). "Six-year-olds," he laughs. "It was like watching an amoeba go down the field."

"I call it 'keeping up with the athletic Joneses,'" Wolff says. Parents want so much for their kids, he says, they spend several thousand dollars a year, commit to traveling almost every weekend, and will do almost anything to help their children excel. "Parents with a shred of sports interest think their kid could be the next Michael Jordan, but they should know that fewer than 5% of kids continue to play beyond high school, if that."

Of course, this level of commitment can lead to tragedy, which it has in several fatal incidents involving parents who got carried away at a child's game. Sometimes, literally carried away.

"Burnout usually comes around age 13," Wolff says. "For years, the kid has loved playing soccer. In winter he or she plays indoors. During summer, it's soccer camp. Maybe it's a travel team. It's just not fun anymore."

Around the age of 13, kids develop their own voice, Wolff says. "They can talk back to mom and dad and say, "I don't want to miss a party to get up early for swim practice.'"

How should parents handle that moment? Connellan and Wolff have some suggestions.

First, try to find out why the child wants to drop out, Connellan urges. "Ask when did you first think about dropping out?" You may find that an incident months before set the child to thinking -- that this is not a recent decision, but that the child has not wanted to let you down.

Watch for symptoms of burnout such as a stomachache on practice or game day. "You don't have to be Dr. Freud," Wolff says, "to see if a kid is unhappy."

Remember, kids do leave sports. This is not the game of sandlot kids played 30 years ago. Leaving does not mean they are quitters. It can mean they are taking responsibility for their own actions and directing their own life. Wolff urges kids who have committed to a travel team to wait until the end of the year so they don't let their teammates down. "Commitment is important," he reminds. Connellan says some younger kids shouldn't even be on travel teams and may need to do what they have to do.

Wolff recommends asking the child what he or she intends to do instead of the sport. "If you leave, you will now have more free time -- what do you intend to do with it? Video games are not an option."

Connellan says parents and coaches should have positive expectations. "When little Mary was learning to walk, you said, 'Come on, you can do it, OK, get back up, you're doing it!' You didn't say, 'You clumsy idiot!' Concentrate on the parts the kid did correctly. Be reasonable. Feedback, he says should be 3-1. Three parts positive to one part constructive -- not every comment, but over the course of time. "Coaches instinctively correct," he admits.

Wolff points out that coaches in middle school and high school are trained and licensed by the state, yet there still are bad coaches. But in the case of travel teams, coaches need no qualifications. Parents, he says, should talk to the coach, see if he or she lets the kids play each time. If the coach says he likes to make noise or believes it's best to be tough on the kids, Wolff says, believe it. He will be. "See if the coach has a chip on his shoulder," he adds.

Wolff leaves little doubt that the coach is an authority figure and rightfully so. Being a friend to the players does not work, he says. But in his "Ten Top Tips for Coaching Kids in Sports," he also advises that fun should be part of every game and every practice. "If they never get a chance to smile or relax," he tells coaches, "you have made it into work."

Kids -- like everyone else -- will quit a job they hate.