Sports have a countless number of benefits, from physical health to emotional well-being to the development of traits, skills and lifelong friends. So it’s a mystery why any kid would want to quit a sport. But then again, there are several factors that just make kids no longer want to participate, all of which are very fixable.
Here are three essential reasons why kids quit sport, coming from someone who quit two sports at an early age due to some of the reasons listed below. Although this list is not exhaustive and many more explanations exist, these three reasons are some of the most widely researched and discussed in the literature.
It’s Just No Longer Fun
In a study by Visik (2015), 90% of young athletes said that the number one reason they played sports was for fun. Yet 70% of children quit competitive sports by the age of 13 (O’Sullivan, 2015). I, like so many others, also quit a competitive sport before the age of thirteen and in my case, it was a sport that was so important to my identity and one that I had so much passion and care for.
So if having fun through sports is so important to children in sport, what causes sports to no longer be fun? Many sources point to coaches, parents and the motivational climate they create (Crocker, 2016). A mastery motivational climate – one that is focused on learning from past experiences and the process rather than the outcome, is said to be far more fun for kids in sport than a performance motivational climate, which looks at the outcome such as winning or competing at the highest level as the most important thing. Winning, which is something that parents and coaches have been proven to care more about than their own children, was the number forty-eight most cited reason for why children participated in sport (Visik, et al., 2015). This differing view between players and coaches can often have negative impacts on a young athlete’s enjoyment of a sport as the parents and coaches put unnecessary pressure on a child to succeed when all they want to do is have fun, maybe hang out with some friends and develop their skills. A great piece of advice for coaches and parents who wish not to ruin their player’s experience in sport is for every critique given to a child, there should be at least five positives. Unfortunately, coaches and parents often get this wrong and think that the only way a player will get better is by criticizing them. I had a hockey coach growing up who even as a pre-teen who hadn’t even hit puberty yet, would tell me the 100 things I did wrong before he said anything nice to me at all. Can you guess which sport I quit before the age of thirteen?
In order to make sports fun for children, a mastery motivational climate is essential and both parents and coaches are essential in creating that, as will be discussed throughout the rest of this article. Other aspects that make sports fun for children include the social aspects (i.e. the friendships they make), having the opportunity to learn sport-specific skills as well as life skills, and simply being given the opportunity to play. These dimensions of the sporting experience should also be emphasized, particularly by parents and coaches as they are in charge of creating the motivational climate for their athletes.
It is natural for parents to want to be involved in their child’s sporting experience. But parents need to be careful not to become over-involved in their sporting experience and act like a “crazed fan” (Omli, LaVoi & Wiese-Bjornstal, 2008). Parents need to be moderately involved (as opposed to under or over-involved), and let their kid have the autonomy to make their own decisions. A healthy level of parental involvement is one where parents attend sporting events, support and encourage the child and their teammates (Omli & Wiese-Bjornstal, 2011). Omli & Wiese-Bjornstal’s (2011) study of fifty-seven children found that if parents were attentive but silent, they were perceived to be more supportive than parents who were more vocal, but were demanding and controlling (Omli & Wiese-Bjornstal, 2011). Among many other factors, negative parental behaviour can have harmful consequences for children including decreased enjoyment and desire to participate (Christofferson & Strand, 2016).
But despite all the research emphasizing the positive impact of supportive parents, many parents still exhibit the wrong kinds of behaviours and act as negative role models (Knight et al., 2010). In a study of 3,000 children from Sports Illustrated for Kids (Bach, 2006), 74% of children interviewed said they had witnessed parental behaviour getting out-of-hand during sporting environments. Parents can often be so toxic to an athlete’s development that some organizations have begun implementing programs such as “silent sidelines”, parent-free zones or even taking steps to ban parents from games (Abrams, 2002). This demonstrates a potential necessity for community sport organizations to do more in preventing negative behaviours among parents. If committed to a program like this, parents can learn to harness their emotions, participate in a valuable way and help to create the right climate for kids to participate in sport for life.
Unfortunately, a major reason why some kids quit sports is because of the very coaches that are there to ensure they have fun playing sport. Many coaches forget that their main role as a coach is not to be a Jose Mourinho mastermind, but to instead ensure that kids want to participate in sport for life. Many coaches get too caught up with results and performances, particularly in regards to winning. But, the role of the coach is not to win games, it’s to ensure kids are having fun so that they want to continue to participate year after year. Winning should not be the main focus of a coach in any sport at any level. It’s all about the process, with winning coming as a nice added bonus to a successful job of making it fun.
Bad coaches argue with referees, ridicule players for making mistakes and most importantly, they don’t make it fun for the players (Abrams, 2002). Good coaches on the other hand, are encouraging, supportive, help players learn from their mistakes and most importantly, they make it fun for the players (Abrams, 2002). Reports of coaches verbally or physically abusing referees can be found on news sites around the world every single day (Abrams, 2002). As a referee in soccer, I have experienced abuse from coaches first hand, even in games for children as young as eight years old. This kind of abuse never helps to improve the experience of the child and always makes them look like a bad role model in the eyes of children (Abrams, 2002). In order for children to enjoy their playing experience, one of the main things that coaches need to do is to be a positive role model (Abrams, 2002).
Playing time can also be a contentious issue that can lead to a child’s decrease in enjoyment of a sport. As previously mentioned, coaches can get way too caught up in the notion of winning, and as a result, fail to give equal or adequate playing time to each of their players. This can lead to a number of issues for children, including decreased self-concept, loss of confidence, lower self-esteem, and decreased enjoyment (Visik et al., 2015). According to O’Sullivan (2015), 90% of kids would rather play for a losing team than sit on the bench for a winning team. This highlights how the most important thing for kids is not whether they are winning or losing. It’s not even whether or not they are performing well. The most important thing that kids care about in sports is that they are being given the opportunity to play and have fun. A coach should never take that away from a child.
It is clear that coaches have an extremely important role in ensuring that children stay in sport for as long as possible. The vast majority of coaches have figured out how to influence players in a positive way and emphasize fun. But there are still far too many coaches worldwide who engage in negative behaviours, present themselves as negative role models in the eyes of children and don’t do enough to make it fun. These are the coaches that are ruining youth sports. Clubs need to do more to stop these coaches from coming back to coach year after year, or help them to become better role models. The coach is essential to a child’s enjoyment of the sport and as a result, their subsequent lifelong participation too.
When children are enjoying a sport, they will often stay in the sport for life. There are many reasons why kids fall out of love for a game or sport. The three explanations listed above only scrape the surface of the complexities to why children may leave a sport. However, in all cases, it is clear that parents, coaches and all other stakeholders in the youth sport setting need to do their part in making sports fun for all, at all times. If the rates of children quitting sport are going to decrease, it needs to start now.
Abrams, D. (2002). The Challenge Facing Parents and Coaches in Youth Sports: Assuring Children Have Fun And Equal Opportunity. Villanova Sports & Entertainment Law Journal, 8, 253-270.
Atkins, M., Johnson, D., Force, E., & Petrie, T. (2013). “Do I Still Want to Play?” Parents’ and Peers’ Influences on Girls’ Continuation in Sport. Journal of Sport Behaviour.
Bach, G. (2006). The Parents Association for Youth Sports A Proactive Method of Spectator Behavior Management. Retrieved November 7, 2018.
Christofferson, J., & Strand, B. (2016). Mandatory Parent Education Programs Can Create Positive Youth Experiences. Strategies: A Journal for Physical and Sport Educators, 29(6), 8-14.
Crocker, P. (2016). Sport and Exercise Psychology. Toronto: Pearson Canada.
Fredricks, J., & Eccles, J. (2007). Parental Influences on Youth Involvement in Sports. Developmental Sport and Exercise Psychology: A Lifespan Perspective, 145-160.
Knight, C. J., Boden, C. M., & Holt, N. L. (2010). Junior Tennis Players’ Preferences for Parental Behaviors. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 22(4), 377-391.
Omli, J., & Wiese-Bjornstal, D. (2011). Kids speak: Preferred parental behavior at youth sporting events. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 82(4), 702–711
Omli, J., LaVoi, N. M., & Wiese-Bjornstal, D. M. (2008). Towards an understanding of parent spectator behavior at youth sport events. The Journal of Youth Sports, 3(2), 30-33.
Visek, A. J., Achrati, S. M., Mannix, H. M., Mcdonnell, K., Harris, B. S., & Dipietro, L. (2015). The Fun Integration Theory: Toward Sustaining Children and Adolescents Sport Participation. JPAH Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 12(3), 424-433.
Why Kids Quit Sports | Changing the Game Project. (2015, May 06). Retrieved March 04, 2016.