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Why Children/Youth Drop Out of Sports

Research Brief
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
(O'Sullivan, 2015).
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 practicea 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
(Wallace, 2016).
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 1315 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
Indiana University. (2016). Why kids ditch youth sports. Retrieved from
Kelley, B., & Carchia, C. (2013). "Hey, data -- swing!" ESPN. Retrieved from
Miner, J. W. (2016) Why 70 percent of kids quit sports by age 13. The Washington Post. Retrieved
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.
Retrieved from
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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Background Adolescence is a decisive stage in human development during which intense physical, psychological, emotional and social changes are experienced. The aim of the present study was to analyse the lifestyle differences related with the health of adolescents enrolled in first year (13.01 ± 0.62 years old) and fourth year of secondary education (16.02 ± 0.63 years old) from a region in the North of Spain. Method A cross-sectional study was conducted with a sample of 761 adolescents from twenty-five educational centres in a northern region of Spain. The sample was made up of 383 first year students and 378 fourth year students. Physical activity engagement, health-related quality of life, self-esteem, adherence to a Mediterranean diet, hours of nightly sleep, body mass index and maximum oxygen consumption were evaluated. Results First-year adolescent students reported higher values for self-esteem, health-related quality of life, physical activity, Mediterranean diet adherence, hours of nightly sleep and maximal oxygen consumption. Some differences emerged according to sex. Associative analysis revealed negative correlations between age, lifestyle habits (physical activity engagement, hours of nightly sleep and Mediterranean diet adherence) and health indicators (VO2max, self-esteem and HRQoL), with a positive association emerging with BMI. Similar findings emerged regardless of sex, with the exception of findings pertaining to VO2max not being significant in boys. Conclusion Differences perceived as a function of the adolescent’s age suggest that it should be an important consideration for educational and health organisations, with the aim of establishing intervention strategies appropriate for each age group.
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Background Lifestyle sport activities (e.g. parkour or skateboarding) are considered attractive and beneficial for a long-term commitment to physical activity (PA) and might be a great opportunity for adolescents who do not feel comfortable in an organized or competitive atmosphere. The purpose of the study was to assess whether participation in lifestyle activities is associated with moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA), out-of-school vigorous physical activity (VPA), and sedentary behaviour in adolescents aged 10–15 years, with major demographic variables (sex, age, socioeconomic status) being taken into account. Methods Data from a research project linked to the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) survey collected in 2017 in the Czech Republic was used. The sample consisted of 679 participants (303 of them girls) and was selected by quota sampling. Chi-square tests were used to assess differences in involvement in lifestyle activities according to sex, grade, and socioeconomic status. Ordinal and linear regression models were used to analyse the associations of participation in lifestyle activities and selected energy balance-related behaviours. Results Participation in lifestyle sport activities was significantly associated with a higher level of physical activity (MVPA and out-of-school VPA) after adjustment for sociodemographic factors, as was participation in organized sport. No significant associations were shown for sedentary behaviour. Conclusions Adolescents participating in lifestyle sport activities report being more physically active and, in case of doing multiple such activities concurrently, also spending less time sitting than their peers not involved in lifestyle sport activities. As such, lifestyle sport activities seem to represent a feasible way of increasing overall PA level in adolescent population.
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The purpose of this study is to examine dropout reasons and various types of dropouts in relation to demographic variables, various types of sports, physical activity, and underlying motivational processes. Retrospective data was collected from three cohorts including 1,176 participants, of which 712 stated that they had sometimes dropped out of organized sport. Findings showed that time-related reasons were the primary causes for dropping out. It was also revealed that athletes with low versus high levels of perceived physical competence dropped out to a higher extent because of experiencing too much pressure, and athletes reporting low versus high social competence withdrew to a higher extent because they did not like their teammates. Results also showed that girls with a foreign background had a higher rate of dropouts compared to boys with the same background. Girls with foreign backgrounds were also found to be less physically active after dropping out from organized sports.
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Leisure constraints theory was used as a framework to systematically review factors associated with dropout of organized sport among children and adolescents. Keyword searches for the population, context and construct of interest (i.e. dropout) identified articles from the entire contents of the following databases: Academic Search Complete, ERIC, MEDLINE, PsycINFO and SPORTDiscus. The initial search yielded 557 studies, and 43 met the selection criteria. Most studies focused solely on adolescents, and 89% of participants were male. Most studies were cross-sectional using quantitative approaches. Almost 30 different sports were included in the reviewed studies; however, the most represented sports were soccer, swimming, gymnastics and basketball. Findings from this review indicated that intrapersonal and interpersonal constraints are more frequently associated with dropping out of sport than structural constraints. Although many discrete factors associated with dropout were identified, five major areas emerged: lack of enjoyment, perceptions of competence, social pressures, competing priorities and physical factors (maturation and injuries). Rarely were the interrelationships between factors or the underlying dimensions of factors examined. Future research would benefit from mixed-methods and prospective approaches. These approaches would allow children and youth to explain how their experience of sport shaped their motives to dropout and allow researchers to probe the extent to which affordances and motives for participation aligned with athletes’ reasons for dropping out.
Youth sport involvement can lead to outcomes classified as the 3Ps: performance, participation and personal development. The 3Ps are central to youth sport systems aimed at providing quality experiences to participants. A challenge for countries and national governing bodies is structuring sport to simultaneously facilitate the achievement of excellence and participation or the 3Ps. To illustrate this challenge, consider deliberate practice, which is an important activity for performance improvements, but also considered less enjoyable and less motivating compared to other sport activities, such as play. Thus, governing bodies often face the challenge of deciding which activities they intend to emphasize (e.g., early specialization directed at talent development or early diversification aimed at increasing participation), and this can have implications for the success/failure of the 3Ps. The purpose of this article is to describe an inclusive sport structure for children (under age 13) targeting the development of the 3Ps, which would be an asset to sport scientists, policymakers and practitioners. Common goals for the 3Ps include the following: avoid burnout/dropout, cultivate intrinsic motivation and maximize involvement in various sport activities. Our contention is the 3Ps can coexist under one system when that system is structured according to the age and competitive level of participants. The Developmental Model of Sport Participation and its seven postulates will be used as the basis of this article to provide evidence-based policies for children in sport.
Objectives: The purpose of this study is to gain understanding of training patterns and roles of significant others (i.e. coaches, parents, peers, and siblings) in adolescent swimmers’ sport participation patterns. Design: The developmental model of sport participation [Côté, J., Baker, J., & Abernethy, B. (2003). From play to practice: A developmental framework for the acquisition of expertise in team sport. In J. Starkes, & K. A. Ericsson (Eds.), Recent advances in research on sport expertise (pp. 89–114). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; Côté, J., & Fraser-Thomas, J. (2007). Youth involvement in sport. In P. R. E. Crocker (Ed.), Introduction to sport psychology: A Canadian perspective (pp. 266–294). Toronto: Pearson Prentice Hall] was used as a framework.Method: Ten dropout and 10 engaged swimmers, matched on key demographic variables participated in a semi-structured qualitative interview.Results: Groups had many similar experiences (e.g. early training, supportive and unsupportive coaches, involved parents). However, only dropouts spoke of early peak performances, limited one-on-one coaching, pressuring parents during adolescence, lack of swimming peers during adolescence, and sibling rivalries. In contrast, only engaged athletes spoke of clubs’ developmental philosophies, coaches’ and parents’ open communication, school friends’ support, and siblings’ general positive influences.Conclusions: Findings highlight the importance of appropriately structured programs and the fragility of athletes’ relationships with significant others during the adolescent years. Implications for sport programmers, coaches, and parents are discussed.
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