Are youth sports a symptom of a serious, widespread social disease? Or are they the salvation of our youth?

The answer is neither. No reasonable person can deny that important problems do exist in some programs. On the other hand, surveys have shown that the vast majority of adults and children involved in sports find them to be an enjoyable and valued part of their lives. The bottom line is that sport programs are what we make of them. And if your son or daughter is playing a sport, you’re probably interested in making it the best possible experience.

What potential benefits can be obtained from participation in youth sports? 

  • Physically―Athletes can learn sport skills and increase their health and fitness.
  • Socially―Sports provide an opportunity to become part of an ever expanding network of friends and acquaintances.
  • Psychologically―Youngsters can develop leadership skills, self-discipline, respect for authority, competitiveness, cooperativeness, sportsmanship, and self-confidence. Moreover, sports can be just plain fun

Why do kids play sports?

Surveys conducted in the United States and Canada indicated that young athletes most often list their sport goals in the following order of importance: 

  • To have fun.
  • To improve skills and learn new ones.
  • To be with friends or make new ones.
  • For thrills and excitement.
  • To win.
  • To become physically fit.

The findings clearly indicate that the primary goal of professional athletes and many adults―winning―is far less important to children. What really matters to kids is having fun! So, the key to gaining life-long benefits from sports is to focus on participation and fun―not simply performance.

What about winning?

Winning is fun when it happens, and it’s great when your child has good coordination and athletic talent. But it’s also wise to be realistic about the abilities and attention span of typical young athletes. For example, it takes a certain amount of motor control and understanding for a youngster to master sport skills. But realistically, although some kids will intently focus on what’s happening in practices and games, you’ll see others goofing off. And that’s okay! It’s to be expected.

What’s important is the joy of the activity. As youngsters mature, they usually get more interested in playing sports the right way. However, at any age, it’s not the job of parents to push their children or live vicariously through them. The major role of parents is to support their children and enjoy the moment.

How can you help to promote fun? 

  • Be upbeat and excited about almost everything that happens.
  • Find something to value and encourage in your child.
  • Consistently reinforce indications of skill improvement, effort, and good teamwork. Say, for example, “I love how accurate you’re getting.” or “Way to go! You gave a lot of effort.” or “It’s great to hear you encouraging your teammates!”
  • Look for opportunities to keep things in perspective. For example, if your child complains about losing a game, you might say, “Hey, I know how you feel, but everybody loses sometime. The important thing is to do your best and have fun.”
  • Ask your child, “Did you have fun?” Hopefully, the answer will be “yes,” and you’ll see evidence of the joy of playing. 

What if your child isn’t having fun?

It’s possible that your child isn’t developmentally ready to play a particular sport and follow the coach’s instructions. If that’s the case, you might consider shifting your child to another sport that’s a little easier or more suited to his or her abilities. There’s no need to rush a disinterested or poorly coordinated child into any sport. And let’s face it: Not every kid wants to be a future professional athlete. The ultimate objective is to do what’s best for your child―not what’s most pleasing to you.

Do you want to learn more about parenting young athletes?

The Mastery Approach to Parenting in Sports is a research-based video that emphasizes skill development, achieving personal and team success, giving maximum effort, and having fun. To access the video, go to the Youth Enrichment in Sports website.

About the Authors

Ronald Smith

Ronald Smith, Ph.D., is a University of Washington clinical sport psychologist who specializes in developing and evaluating interventions designed to improve the functioning of athletes.

You are reading

Coaching and Parenting Young Athletes

Eliminate Unruly Spectator Behavior From Youth Sports

Sport officials deserve respect and cooperation.

The "Professionalization" of Youth Sports

Youth sports are not part of the entertainment industry!

High Quality Teaching Boosts Learning in Young Athletes

Critical duties of youth sport coaches and parents