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Fixing the Youth Sports Problem - Part 1

Image source: Charlie Kindel / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 / Cropped from original

Read time: 10 min

Today's youth athletes suffer from a host of problems due to decreased physical activity and our society's current youth sport model.

Both issues translate to more kids who lack physical literacy, meaning they can't do basic things like skip or throw a ball properly. In addition, year-round sport specialization contributes to youth overuse injury rates [7].

The physically illiterate child is less likely to engage in (life-long) physical activity [13] and has less athletic potential than someone with a solid foundation of physical skills.

Parents, coaches, administrators, and organizers need education about the pitfalls of the year-round sport model. (This position stand [5] and infographic [1] from the AMSSM, along with this report by Brenner (2007) [3] are a good start.)

But this post is for youth coaches. Whether you're a sport coach or a strength and conditioning coach, you're in a great position to shift these trends in the right direction and create more physically literate athletes.

Why physical literacy?

Image source: Derek Jensen / CC0 1.0 / Cropped from original

Let's face it. If our kids can't move well or are plagued with injuries, they're not going to be going on to the next level. Neither will the kids who stay inside playing video games all day nor those who experience burnout after just a few seasons.

More importantly, all of them will miss out on the positive physical, psychological, emotional, and social benefits that youth sports can provide.

Regardless of a kid's incoming talent or goals, it's our professional obligation to work on developing physical literacy with every youth and adolescent athlete under our charge.

The greatest benefit of emphasizing long-term development and physical literacy is that we minimize the risk of physical and psychological trauma. We also increase overall potential and the depth of talent at all levels of competition.

Wouldn't it be a good problem to have if your second and third strings gave your starters a run for their money? Think about how your competition would feel if your bench was just as effective as the starting lineup!

Unfortunately, we're faced with the opposite problem. We have too few "good" athletes and mistakenly focus the bulk of our attention on these few talented individuals.

Those unsung players with less skill possess enormous untapped potential, and we need to shift our focus on the end-product of a "talented athlete" and look at what it takes to get someone there.

Fixing the the Youth Sports Problem

Working with youth athletes requires us to address a number of different qualities. Today's strategies focus on the psychological aspect of coaching youth athletes.

It's hard to coach an athlete that doesn't pay attention, doesn't care what you have to say, or stops showing up. Today's strategies will help you keep youth athletes engaged and interested.

In Part 2, we'll deliver specific coaching strategies to build a proper movement foundation. The combination of today's strategies and those in Part 2 addresses the holistic development youth sports can provide and ensures your athletes are poised for long-term (athletic) success.

1) Keep it FUN!

The number one reason kids play sports is because it's fun [9,12]. Unfortunately, adults can easily forget such a simple concept.

As coaches, we sometimes get too focused on winning. Or we may get frustrated when our athletes lack skill, forgetting that it takes time and effort to develop those skills.

Parents get caught up in constantly measuring their kids against peers, whether it's in school, on the field, or making sure their kids participate in the "right" extracurriculars.

Meanwhile, kids spend more time confined to a desk and less time at recess or in a legitimate P.E. class. You, the coach, end up stuck trying to corral a group of rambunctious kids to focus for the brief time you get to work with them.

It's a fine line between keeping order and not being too overbearing—especially considering that the number one reason kids give for quitting a sport is that it's no longer fun [4]. (There's that word again.)

Youth athletes are so diverse in their level of talent, development, and motivation. That's why youth coaches are so important.

Some kids pick up a skill with relative ease. Others may struggle so much that you question your coaching abilities.

There are early developers who enjoy success among their less physically-mature peers, while the late bloomers too often get weeded out before they've really developed.

A few kids may have a legitimate desire to play in the big leagues. Others might be there just because their friends are too, or maybe their parents make them come.

Regardless of the individual's skills or reasons for playing a sport, youth coaches must consider these and myriad other factors. Certainly, this fact holds true for all coaches.

But older, elite athletes (i.e. college, pro, or international level) are a more homogeneous group. These athletes (should) already possess a certain level of skill and ability.

They hold sport and training to be more like a job, which for some it literally is. Hopefully they still enjoy it, too.

But for youth athletes, sports shouldn't be job-like. Even early-specialization sports like gymnastics have a minimum age requirement to compete at the Olympics, because there's more to being a kid than just playing sports.

So remember to keep things fun! Because that's why kids play sports in the first place. And as soon as it's not fun, that's when they quit.

2) Let them know you care

Image source: Global Sports Forum / CC BY-ND 2.0 / Cropped from original

Youth athletes rely on adults to create a supportive environment and positive experience, so it's no surprise that adult attitudes and behaviors influence youth athletes' sport enjoyment [11].

But did you know that coaches may be even more important than parents for making sports enjoyable [10]? Needless to say, coaches play a critical role in shaping the youth sport experience.

Youth athletes need to be secure in the fact that you care about them, because it let's them know that you're invested in their growth and success.

Youth athletes are kids, which means they're still developing—physically, psychologically, emotionally, and socially.

If you truly care about your athletes, you'll work to address their holistic development. That means encouraging children to grow beyond just being an athlete.

Every kid matters, and your time with them is valuable. Even if your time spent working with a kid is limited, your support and encouragement can have important and lasting effects.

It's always great when past athletes come back to visit and share their new successes—athletic or otherwise. But it's also a poignant reminder that what you do matters.

The reality is that most kids won't become professional athletes, so they'll be applying any lessons they learn from playing sports to other areas of their lives.

If kids don't know that you care about or believe in them, then they will tune you out. Practices, workouts, and games will become chores for them, and any lessons you may hope to impart will have no audience.

3) Encourage a growth mindset

We all understand that youth athletes are still building a repertoire of movement and skills. More importantly, they're still developing a sense of self and learning how to cope with adversity.

In all of these regards, teaching kids a growth mindset is one of the most empowering things we can do for them.

Growth mindset individuals view talent and skill as things they can improve versus as fixed traits. Therefore, the only ceiling to one's ability is how hard he or she is willing to work to get better.

A growth mindset will encourage kids to grow from their successes, rebound and learn from their failures, and welcome new challenges with confidence [2,6,8].

The hallmark of a growth mindset is that there's always room for improvement. We can instill this belief in our athletes by praising them for working hard and applying themselves.

A growth mindset provides the framework for athletes to understand drills, exercises, and scrimmages as opportunities to improve their skills, technique, and strategy. It also ensures that they'll be receptive to your guidance on areas for improvement following games—win or lose.

When we praise children for their ability instead, they're more likely to adopt a fixed mindset, which attributes success to innate ability. One comes to view ability as fixed and predetermined.

With this view, it doesn't matter how hard one tries as long as he or she is gifted enough. Superior talent will prevail.

Conflating success and ability in this way is problematic because one's ability is defined by his or her success [8]. If one fails, it must mean he or she isn't talented enough.

Talented individuals with a fixed mindset seek to uphold the efficacy of their label. They perform well in familiar situations where they know they can succeed but avoid challenging or unfamiliar scenarios, because the chance of failure raises the possibility that they might not be so gifted after all [8].

The differential effects between a growth and a fixed mindset are most apparent in the face of difficulty or after failure [6], so it's important to instill a growth mindset early on, before the stakes are high.

We all experience failure, and a growth mindset can empower individuals with the resiliency and tenacity to learn and come back stronger next time [2,6,8].

Meanwhile, those with a fixed mindset experience helplessness, decreased motivation, and a damaged ego after failure [2,6,8]. And think of those who might view themselves as untalented to begin with.

Here's a great TED Talk that explores the growth mindset a little further and highlights some of the research in this area, including some of the work referenced above.

"The Power of Belief - Mindset and Success" presented by Eduardo Briceño at TEDxManhattanBeach.


Childhood and adolescence contain critical developmental windows during which kids should learn key physical skills. Decreased physical activity and an emphasis on year-round competitive sports place kids at risk for missing out on building fundamental movement skills.

The impact of one's experience during these sensitive periods is why youth coaches are so important. A child's experience during these formative years sets the trajectory for future athletic performance and success.

Once children lose interest, we lose our opportunity to work with them. The strategies outlined today provide a framework to keep youth and adolescent athletes interested throughout their development.

Next week, I'll discuss three specific coaching strategies to implement within this framework. Make sure you sign up for our Newsletter so you don't miss out. And if you found this article useful, make sure to share it with others.

UPDATE: Here's a link to Part 2


[1] American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. (2014). [Overuse injuries & burnout in youth sports] [Infographic].

[2] Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78(1), 246-263.

[3] Brenner, J. (2007). Overuse injuries, overtraining, and burnout in child and adolescent athletes. Pediatrics, 119(6), 1242-1245.

[4] Butcher, J., Lindner, K. J., & Johns, D. P. (2002). Withdrawal from competitive youth sport: A retrospective ten-year study. Journal of Sport Behavior, 25(2), 145-163.

[5] DiFiori, J. P., Benjamin, H. J., Brenner, J., Gregory, A., Jayanthi, N., Landry, G. L., & Luke, A. (2014). Overuse injuries and burnout in youth sports: A position statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 24(1), 3-20.

[6] Grant, H. & Dweck, C. S. (2003). Clarifying achievement goals and their impact. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(3), 541-553.

[7] Jayanthi, N., LaBella, C., Dugas, L., Feller, E. R., & Patrick, B. (2013). Risks of specialized training and growth for injury in young athletes: A prospective cohort study. Proceedings from 2013 AAP National Conference and Exhibition. Orlando, FL: American Academy of Pediatrics.

[8] Mueller, C. M. & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children's motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1), 33-52.

[9] Safe Kids Worldwide. (2012). Coaching our kids to fewer injuries: A report on youth sports safety.

[10] Scanlan, T. K., Carpernter, P. J., Lobel, M., & Simons, J. P. (1993). Sources of enjoyment for youth sport athletes. Pediatric Exercise Science, 5, 275-285.

[11] Scanlan, T. K. & Lewthwaite, R. (1986). Social psychological aspects of competition for male youth sport participants: IV. Predictors of enjoyment. Journal of Sport Psychology, 8, 25-35.

[12] Seefeldt, V., Ewing, M., & Walk, S. (1993). Overview of youth sports programs in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development.

[13] Telama, R., Yang, X., Hirvensalo, M., & Raitakari, O. (2006). Participation in organized youth sport as a predictor of adult physical activity: A 21-year longitudinal study. Pediatric Exercise Science, 17, 76-88.

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