Number 46/December 2016
Why Children/Youth Drop Out of Sports?
Tek B. Dangi and Peter A. Witt
“Kids join youth sports programs in droves -- and drop out in droves.” (Indiana University, 2016)
It is estimated that over 38 million kids are involved in youth sports each year, and almost 75 percent
of American households with school-age children have at least one child participating in youth
sports (Williams, 2016). However, according to a variety of sport psychologists, youth development
scholars and practitioners, the rate of children dropping out of sports by the time they are 12 or 13,
and often earlier is a major concern (O'Sullivan, 2015; Wallace, 2016). Interestingly, studies of
youth sports participation and dropout rates in other countries show similar trends (Carlman,
Wagnsson, & Patriksson, 2013). The purpose of this brief is to discuss reasons why children drop
out of sports and possible ways to enhance and maintain sports participation.
Reasons Children/Youth Drop Out of Sports
Sports psychologists, youth development scholars, and practitioners (e.g., Carlman, Wagnsson, &
Patriksson, 2013; Gould, 2016; Kelley & Carchia, 2016; O'Sullivan, 2015; Wallace, 2016; Williams,
2016) have presented various reasons why children/youth drop out of sports. Crane & Temple (2015,
pp. 121-22) systematically reviewed factors associated with children and adolescents’ dropping out
of organized sports (the review covering 43 publications from Europe, North America and
Australia). They then used a model of recreation and leisure constraints to organize drop out reasons
under the three headings in the model: Intrapersonal, interpersonal and structural constraints.
Following their lead, several of the reasons for children and youth dropping out of sports are
presented below under the three constraints model headings.
Intrapersonal Constraints: Lack of enjoyment (not having fun, being bored); Low perceptions of
physical competence; Intrinsic Pressures (e.g. stress); and Perceptions of negative team dynamics
(negative feelings towards team or coach) (Crane & Temple, 2015, pp. 121-22).
Not having fun. According to a study by Kelley & Carchia (2016), 38% of girls and 39% of
boys suggest that lack of fun is the biggest reason for dropping out of sports. Dropping out may
be due to factors such as inflexible practice routines, and strict rules and guidelines which take
away the fun part of participating (O'Sullivan, 2015; Williams, 2016).
Anxiety and nervousness due to excessive criticism. Children can experience undue
criticism, and pressure from parents and coaches to perform their best, win every game,
compete so they can earn honors and recognition, and perhaps compete for college
scholarships. In these situations, children may enjoy the game less and suffer anxiety due to the
fear of making mistakes and may feel disrespected in terms of being appreciated for their
abilities, as opposed to the mistakes they make (O'Sullivan, 2015). In turn, this can lead to
feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt--I’m not good enough--which could carry over to other
life situations (Kelley & Carchia, 2016).
Pressure from the coaches or not getting along with coaches. Some coaches have poor
communication skills, autocratic or authoritarian styles of interacting with young athletes, and
are generally unable to relate to young athletes, which may lead athletes to choose to abandon
participation (Fraser-Thomas, Côté, & Deakin, 2008). Coaches may also pressure athletes to
concentrate on only one sport, which can cause ill-will and create an uncomfortable
atmosphere for the athlete (The Ultimate Sports Parents, 2016; Wallace, 2016).
Interpersonal Constraints: Pressure (family, coach, peers); Other social priorities; Having other
things to do; and Pursuit of an alternative sport (Crane & Temple, 2015, pp. 121-22).
Parental pressures and loss of ownership. Many children are introduced to sports by their
parents, and often only continue participation because of pressure exerted by their parents (The
Ultimate Sports Parents, 2016). In some cases, children are pressured to participate because
their parents are living out their own fantasies through their children, or the parents gain status
or recognition from their children’s participation. Often children feel pressured to succeed
because they do not want to let their parents down or disappoint them (Fraser-Thomas, Côté, &
Deakin, 2008; Wallace, 2016). Excessive parental involvement and guidance can lead children
to feeling a lack of ownership of their own motivations or sport participation experiences
Not having enough time to participate in other age appropriate activities. Deep, structured
involvement with one activity may take about time from socializing, hanging out, being with
friends, interacting with members of the opposite sex. This may be especially critical in the
decisions of children once they reach middle school (Carlman, Wagnsson, & Patriksson, 2013).
In a similar manner, excessive pressure to be involved in sports may actually take away time
from studying, getting good grades and keeping up with one’s academics (Kelley & Carchia,
2016). Finally, our current sports model may not support older children’s desire to play just for
the fun of it. Thus, only children who can advance to the elite level of participation will be
encouraged to participate and others will be encouraged to find alternative activities (Miner,
Structural Constraints: Time (for training and travel); Injuries; Cost; and Inadequate facilities
(Crane & Temple, 2015, pp. 121-22).
Sports related injuries: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
between 2001 and 2009 approximately 2.7 million kids under 20 were treated for sports and
recreation injuries (Kelley & Carchia, 2016), including a dramatic increase in head injuries.
Football concussions among 10- to 14-year-olds more than doubled from 2000 to 2010.
According to Williams (2016): “Each year, more than 3.5 million young athletes experience a
sports injury severe enough to warrant medical attention, …and approximately 66 percent of
these injuries are serious enough to require attention in the emergency department” (para. 5).
Some kids recover and return to the sports, but many do not. Kids or parents do not want to
take further risks.
Overuse/Burn out: Intensive, repetitive use of certain body parts for specific sports has been
associated with overuse of muscles or muscle ruptures (Wallace, 2016). O'Sullivan (2015)
noted that many children are asked or pressured through families and coaches to undertake
more and more practice—a factor that can lead to burnout and eventual dropout.
Not being given playing time. Some coaching practices and game decisions focus on giving
the best players maximum playing time, with the main focus being on winning. These
decisions, however, may drive some players with lesser abilities off teams or out of sports
entirely (Fraser-Thomas, Côté, & Deakins, 2008; O'Sullivan, 2015).
Feeling that participation is too structured and there is not enough time for free play or
just being a kid: When sports revolve around rigorous schedules, other directed involvement,
and strict adherence to rules, children may feel a loss of autonomy and spontaneity. They
may miss the simple pleasures of playing a pickup game in the park with friends without adult
structured pressure and adherence to rules and procedures not endorsed by the children
themselves (Williams, 2016).
Financial constraints: Many sports require a considerable financial investment for on-going
participation. Costs alone may lead children from poor communities to not participate
initially or cease participation if costs cannot be covered (Kelley & Carchia, 2016; Miner,
2016) Year-round training, equipment costs, coaching fees, camps, tournament, and travel
related costs can eat into a family’s budget and be a determining factor in whether some
children can start or continue.
Despite findings such as lack of fun element, sports injury, burn out and other factors causing sports
dropouts, Kelley & Carchia (2016) also thought it as a temporary phenomenon. They found in other
studies that 33 percent of kids had restarted a sport they'd quit, which gives options for re-attracting
kids to sports by minimizing such obstacles or offering multiple sports options. It is also supported
by Carlman, Wagnsson, & Patriksson’s (2013) study that many school athletes who dropped out of
sports will reenter the same or different sports/clubs later on.
Suggestions to Minimize Sports Drop Outs and Increase Youth Engagement
Based on past and current research and practices, various suggestions to minimize sports attrition
have been offered.
Redefine sports goal away from winning towards having fun. Parents and coaches should
redefine success in terms of keeping participation as fun as possible, with attention to enabling
participants to develop lifetime skills as opposed to a win at all costs philosophy (Wallace, 2016).
Further, less emphasis should be placed on sports participation as a means for winning college
scholarships since the number of young participants who will actually earn their way to college
through an athletic scholarship is very low. Emphasis should be put on enabling participants to have
a sense of fun and trying their best, while being treated respectfully by coaches, parents and
teammates, and getting playing time (O’Sullivan, 2015).
Balance parental involvement. Parental support and involvement is crucial for kids’ sports success
in terms of providing leadership, support and investment. However, over-involvement such as
instructing players from the sidelines, arguing with coaches and referees, and criticizing kids for
mistakes has taken away sports’ joys from kids. Children should have the ownership of the game and
the game experience (Samuels, 2016). Parents should be encouraged to offer encouragement to all
players, and encouraged to assess whether their own behavior is contributing to a respectful sports
atmosphere for their children, including being quiet on the ride home, cheering positively, and not
yelling at the referees (O'Sullivan, 2015; Wallace, 2016).
Encourage multiple sport participation. Parents should encourage children to play multiple sports
before the age of 12 and give children a strong voice about the sports they choose to participate in
Enable children to have autonomy and ownership over game experiences. Parents should enable
children to make choices about their level of participation, e.g., recreational vs. competitive (The
Ultimate Sports Parents, 2016) and encourage children to have a voice and decision making power
over their use of time and the activities in which they chose to participate (Samuels, 2016). Parents
should also encourage time for children to just be children, by promoting involvement in impromptu
pick-up games or just playing in the park with friends.
Encourage rules that give every child a chance to play. Coaches should provide playing
opportunities for all children and opportunities that can help maximize each child’s on-the-field
potential (O'Sullivan, 2015; Samuels, 2016). For most younger players, no youth trophy is worth
sitting on the bench.
Decrease parental pressure about winning. Emphasis should be placed on developing a child-
friendly atmosphere and achievable expectations, with an emphasis on fundamental skills
development and enjoyment instead of competition or winning. Children’s fear that they have to be
the best, or they have failed, should be replaced by the reality that failure is a necessary part of the
development process (Samuels, 2016).
Parents should avoid living their sports dreams through their children. Many parents play out
their own fantasies about sports through their children’s activities (Indiana University, 2016).
Children become commodities to be managed and promoted, as opposed to promoting the full
development of the child, with respect for the child’s feelings, goals and wishes. As noted by Miner
(2016), “…until we dismantle the parenting culture that emphasizes achievement and success over
healthy, happy kids, we don’t stand a chance of solving [the youth sports problem]” (para. 15).
Sport participation should begin at an appropriate age. Parents should avoid pushing their
children into specializing in a single sport, being on traveling teams, or having their lives dominated
by sports, especially before the age of 12. Parents need to lessen their own fear that their children
will fall behind if they are not part of early sport specialization (Wallace, 2016). Excessive play and
practice should also be avoided to decrease injuries due to overuse, burnout, and long-term physical
consequences (Samuels, 2016).
Côté & Hancock (2016) captured many of these ideas in their Developmental Model of Sport
Participation (DMSP), which emphasizes balancing performance, participation and personal
development in youth sports involvements. Their recommendations are particularly suitable for
children under the age of 13.
Regulate length of season to 3 or 4 months, with a maximum of 6 months.
Limit lengthy travel to organized competitions.
Introduce ‘grass-roots’ sport programs that focus on trying different sports.
Do not implement a selection process of more ‘talented’ children until the specialization
Provide healthy competitive opportunities, but do not overemphasize winning and long-term
outcomes such as championships.
Discourage early specialization in one sport.
Allow children to play all positions in a given sport.
Promote deliberate play within and beyond organized sport.
Design play and practice activities that focus on fun and short-term rewards.
Understand children’s needs and do not ‘over coach.’
The DMSP also proposes three stages of sport development:
sampling (age 6-12 when athletes participate in variety of sports);
specializing (age 13–15 with decreasing number of sports);
investment years (age 16+) (Fraser-Thomas, Côté, & Deakin 2008, p. 646).
Conclusions and Implications
Youth sports participation holds positive potential for enabling the development of children and
youth. However, there has been a growing emphasis among parents, coaches, and youth participants
on commodifying sport as an arena for winning, status, and living out parental and coaches, rather
than players’ dreams. In many situations, parents and coaches need to rethink their motivations and
their goals and become more youth development focused as they pursue sport involvements for
children and youth. For example, Wallace (2016) notes that in some instances, “Kids are telling us
this is not for me. It might be for you, but it's really not meeting our needs" (para. 8). Luckily, there
is a lot of current attention to these issues and many useful suggestions are available for parents and
coaches to follow. Careful guidance and actions from parents and coaches are critical to the
evaluation of benefits and downsides of early sports involvement and ways to decrease instances of
children dropping out, burning out, or suffering injuries.
Carlman, P., Wagnsson, S., & Patriksson, G. (2013). Causes and consequences of dropping out from
organized youth sports. Swedish Journal of Sport Research, 2(1), 26-54.
Côté, J., & Hancock, D. J. (2016). Evidence-based policies for youth sport programs. International
Journal of Sport Policy and Politics, 8(1), 51-65
Crane, J., & Temple, V. (2015). A systematic review of dropout from organized sport among
children and youth. European physical education review, 21(1), 114-131.
Fraser-Thomas, J., Côté, J., & Deakin, J. (2008). Understanding dropout and prolonged engagement
in adolescent competitive sport. Psychology of sport and exercise, 9(5), 645-662.
Gould, D. (2016). Why do kids drop out of sports? Positive Challenge Alliance. Retrieved from
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Kelley, B., & Carchia, C. (2013). "Hey, data -- swing!" ESPN. Retrieved from
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O'Sullivan, J. (2015) Why Kids Quit Sports. Changing the Game Project. Retrieved from
Samuels, D. (2016). 7 reasons kids quit sports, and what it means for coaches. Football Scoop.
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The Ultimate Sports Parents (2016). Why pressure causes sports kids to drop out. Retrieved from
Wallace, K. (2016). How to make your kid hate sports without really trying. CNN. Retrieved from
Williams, T. (2016). Reasons Why Kids Drop Out of Sports. Our Everyday Life. Retrieved from
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