We’re Hurting Our Youth Athletes

01.18.2018 | Forge Performance

We’re Hurting Our Youth Athletes

At Forge, the topic of Youth Athletes in Sports really hits home for us. As Strength Coaches and Youth Fitness Specialists, it pains us to see the direction Youth Sports is going. Why? Well, for starters, youth participation in sports is down 8% in the last decade, and that number is steadily on the rise. By the age of 14, nearly 60% of youth athletes quit all sports. Even with the decrease in participation, injuries are steadily rising, and costs for participation are going up. We’re hurting our youth athletes. So, why is this trend happening?

Decrease in Participation

It’s not a new thing that the agenda of coaches and parents rarely align with that of the youth athlete. Part of this is due to the fact that recreational market for youth sports is dwindling fast. The main reason being is that there simply is no money in recreational youth sports. This financial benefit is most often reserved for competitive sports.

The increase for participation in competitive sports places children in situations they normally wouldn’t opt to be in. Parents and Coaches place far more importance on winning and their child being the best than any other attribute. So what do children have to say about their participation in sports? A recent survey from Michigan State University polled a small group of boys and girls ages 10 to 12 on why they played sports. Their answers?

  1. Have fun
  2. Do something I’m good at
  3. Improve my skills
  4. Stay in shape
  5. Get exercise

Winning didn’t even make it into the top 10. Granted, this is a very small study to base a formal analysis on, but all of these answers align with our personal experience as well.

If you place a child in an environment that doesn’t meet their needs, their likelihood of continuing for the long haul is extremely unlikely (60% unlikely to be exact). This becomes even more painful to hear as Fitness Professionals given that, for the first time ever, the United States had more people classified as overweight or obese than healthy/fit individuals. Staying in shape and getting exercise ranked as #4 and 5 on their list for participation!

Costs Are Increasing

We’re sure you’ve experienced this yourself, the cost for youth participation in sports is at an all-time high. Youth sports is now a $15 billion-dollar industry in the United States. In some cases, families are spending as much as $20,000 annually to keep their kids involved in youth sports. After you factor in the registration fees, tournament fees, costs of equipment, and travel, the expenses become astronomical. The increase in costs also contribute to the lack of participation in some families, simply because they can’t afford it. At a time where we should be giving our children even more opportunities to participate in sports, we are doing anything but.

Again, all of this is an issue because competition sells. Parents get roped into the hype of competitive sports, and children are exploited for their wanting to participate in sports with their friends. It would be easy to blame the large corporations for this, but the responsibility falls on us. Just like 6 hours of electronic usage per day is not advised, we have to do a better job of restoring balance to our kids lives.

Injury Rates Continue to Rise

We’re huge advocates of sport, but even bigger advocates of movement. Today, there is a huge focus on early specialization in sports. A child will start a travel tee-ball team or soccer team at age 5 and compete in it year round until they’re 11-13. This is typically when you see one of two things happen; injury, or complete burnout from the sport.

Overuse Injuries

It’s not a coincidence that most non-contact youth injuries happen in the early teenage years. This is the time where the children start to undergo the most rapid changes of maturation. When a child specializes in a sport early, they wind up building up movement dysfunctions and imbalances. For a while, these imbalances go unnoticed, until the child hits a rapid growth spurt during puberty. The large changes in limb length, lack of coordination, and weakness to the connective and muscle tissue are a recipe for disaster to an athlete who specializes early.

Why does this happen? Because most sports offer limited amounts of various movements, or too much repetitive stress of one type of movement. The body will learn the best way to perform the movement it does most often. This helps the child when they’re young, but ultimately, they pay the price later in their athletic career.

Mental Fatigue

Children don’t have the ability to take a break from the things they love. They lack the self control to try something new, especially with the influences of their friends. Before you know it, the year round occupation of weekend games and travel becomes really old. Moreso in highly competitive environments, you’ll notice a burnout affect when they undergo a maturation process.

It’s almost like the kids have a mid-life crisis at 14. They start wondering, “why am I spending all my time doing something I don’t really like that much?” It was fun for a while, but have the same thing for lunch everyday for 6 years and you’ll want to puke at the site of it again. High School is one of the best times for kids to occupy their time with team sports. It gives them a mental break from the pressures associated with their education, peers, and we’re ruining it for them.

Ripe for the Picking

Regardless of their future aspirations, the best thing we can do as parents and coaches is encourage our kids to participate in a variety of sports. There’s a saying in the Youth Fitness industry that goes “Early to ripen, early to rotten”. The faster they get better at a particular sport, the worse off they are in the long run. Here’s what to do instead:

Ages 3-5

  • Don’t push sports at this age. Push for free play, creativity, and just pure movement. The more structured play they have, the worse off they’ll be. You’re old a boring. Don’t ruin their childhood.

Ages 6-9

  • Introduce them to sports in an EDUCATION based environment. Competition is not the key here. The key it to learn the rules of competition, fair play, different games, and the introduction of the skills necessary to play these games.

Ages 10-13

  • Introduce them to friendly competition. Here, children will find what sports they enjoy, versus ones they aren’t as thrilled about. This DOES NOT mean specialize, just narrow the sports down that they know they enjoy.
    • Today’s children will probably look to take advantage of more free-play, non-traditional sports.
  • If your child chooses only 1 sport, set a limit on how many months out of the year they can “play” their sport, and how many months they’re required to participate in programs such as speed and agility, strength training, etc. or encourage them to find an active hobby.

Ages 14-16

  • Although specialization IS NOT encouraged here, most children will gravitate toward 1 sport. Use the guidelines listed in the 10-13 age group for this situation.
  • Competition may not be your kid’s thing, and unless you live under a rock, you’ll notice this a lot earlier than when they’re 14. Look for recreational situations for them to continue to play and have fun outside of the more competitive High School environment. Non-Traditional sports would be a great thing to introduce here, such as rock climbing, skiing, parkour, etc.

Ages 17+

  • 90% of the top professional athletes in every sport played more than 1 sport all the way through High School. The best player on the field is the best athlete on the field, ALWAYS. Playing multiple sports throughout their lifetime gives children the fundamental base they need to accel later in life.


The best thing we can do for our kids is encourage them to experience a variety of movement as often as possible. This will not only help to set a firm athletic base, but increase the likelihood of their participation as they continue to mature, decrease the likelihood they will experience a sports related injury or burnout, as well as continue to practice the healthy physical, mental, and emotional associations of sport later in their adult lives. It’s up to us, parents. Are you up for the task?