USA TODAY High School Sports has a weekly column on the college recruiting process. Here, you’ll find practical tips and real-world advice on becoming a better recruit to maximize your opportunities to play at the college level. Kyle Winters was a standout high school pitcher who tossed seven scoreless innings in a major tournament during his senior year. That performance against some heavy-hitting future MLB draft picks helped Kyle earn a full-ride scholarship to the University of New Mexico. However, Kyle opted to play professional baseball and was drafted by the Florida Marlins in the fifth round and played seven seasons for various minor league teams.
Kyle is just one of many former college and professional players, college coaches, and parents who are part of the Next College Student Athlete team. Their knowledge, experience, and dedication along with NCSA’s history of digital innovation, and long-standing relationship with the college coaching community have made NCSA the largest and most successful athletic recruiting network in the country.
Many parents bemoan the countless hours their children spend playing video games.
“Why don’t they just go out and play sports like we used to do?” parents ask each other. “Kids just aren’t as active as we used to be.”
It’s true that kids aren’t sticking with sports as they did in the past. In fact, 70 percent of young athletes will drop out of organized sports by the time they turn 13. Aside from those kids who just don’t like sports and those who aren’t physically able to compete, this is a staggering number of dropouts at a young age.
Research—like the 2014 George Washington University study—has found that the reasons kids are leaving youth sports are similar to their motives for turning to video games. They want action, freedom to make mistakes without fear of backlash, socialization with friends, control over their own activity. And most importantly, they just want to have fun.
In this article, I’ll break down exactly why kids participate in youth sports and how parents and coaches can create a culture that encourages a lasting passion for the game.
Nine out of 10 kids say they participate in youth sports to have fun
It may sound like a no-brainer that kids play sports because they are fun. However, kids’ definitions of “fun” are a lot different from an adult. Researchers actually asked young athletes what they found fun about youth sports, offering 81 reasons. Overwhelmingly, the young athletes reported that social interactions and access to action tipped the fun scale in the right direction. The most fun aspects of youth sports were:
- Trying your best
- When coaches treat players with respect
- Getting playing time
- Playing well together as a team
- Getting along with your teammates
- Exercising and being active
As adults wrap their minds around these top fun factors, here are some of the lower rated aspects of youth sports:
63. Playing in tournaments
67. Earning medals or trophies
73. Traveling to new places to play
Notice that winning and getting medals were both in the lower tier of what athletes consider fun about youth sports. The study found that athletes care more about simply playing their sport than actually winning games. In fact, among female athletes, winning plummeted even further down the list of what makes sports fun.
Adults need to consider young athletes’ priorities in youth sports
With so many young athletes leaving organized sports, it’s imperative for the adults involved to start taking the needs of children seriously. This can be tricky, as youth sports are continuing to ramp up the competitiveness, emphasizing structure and winning above all else.
Here are some key ways parents can start to make youth sports about the athletes again:
- Simply ask your child if they are having fun in their sport. Whatever your child’s definition of fun, if it’s not being fulfilled by their sport, they will turn elsewhere. Find out what they find fun about their sports—and what they don’t enjoy. Then, you can start to adjust their experience.
- Make sure your athlete is getting playing time. Maybe your child is on an elite team that wins every game, but he doesn’t get any playing time. Consider joining a lower-level team that emphasizes playing time. As we know, kids prioritize playing time over winning.
- Praise the recovery, don’t reprimand the mistake. Kids are going to make errors—and that’s one of the most important parts of youth sports! They need that space to learn how to fail and bounce back. Instead of reprimanding young athletes for messing up, adults can praise their ability to recover from their mistakes. This requires a mindset shift for parents and coaches alike.
- Give them back ownership of the game. Parents generally don’t stand over their kid’s shoulder when they are playing video games, so why do they scrutinize their athletes during sporting events? Let athletes play the game. If you find yourself wanting to shout out instructions from the stands, try yelling encouragement instead. Let them fail and succeed on their own.
Developing an early passion for sports serves children throughout their life. Adolescents who play sports are eight times more likely to be active at age 24 than non-athletes, according to the Michigan Study of Adolescent Life Transitions. Researchers point out that organized sports help athletes mentally, socially, and psychologically, as well.
A passion for sports also pays dividends in the college recruiting process. Athletes who love their sport are more driven to stick with it, even when they face obstacles or challenges. Furthermore, coaches want to recruit athletes who are passionate about their sport, rather than kids who are just interested in cashing in scholarship money.