The Impending Crisis in Youth Sports

If youth are not miniature adults, why do we continue to subject kids to a watered-down adult sports model?

Youth sports programs evolved from the success of adult professional leagues. This is an important distinction. The success of professional football in 1892, for example, led to the advent of youth football leagues like Pop Warner in 1929. Major League Baseball (1871) led to Little League Baseball (1939).

The development of athletes leading to the professional level was not the norm at the turn of the twentieth century. Sports for youth were created to provide an opportunity for kids to enhance participation in and development of skills related to that particular sport.

Youth Are Not Miniature Adults

The program model may be at least partly to blame for the crises facing modern youth sports. Each youth organization that created a watered-down version of the professional adult model included organizing the sport during the same season as the adult league, scoring the same, and including league play, tournaments and championships. Sure, the size of the field and equipment, length of the season, and number of contests may have been reduced, but it still looks like the definition of a miniature adult paradigm, not a youth-focused program design. If we considered youth as miniature adults for program design, therefore, there is little wonder why we face the current issues in youth sport.

There are many existing issues in youth sport, such as the use of talent identification models, maximizing participation in one sport in an effort to achieve expert proficiency (based largely on the controversial 10,000-hour rule) and its subsequent early sport specialization, and burnout, dropout, or apathy to participate. It appears that the basis for these issues lies in the misuse of the original structure of youth sports.

The original youth sports model most likely did not intend for the current bastardized version to promulgate. Nonetheless, the original model does not prevent it from happening either. Unless the original youth sports model is challenged and improved, it appears that we can expect the issues to not only continue but to reach a critical tipping point in the not too distant future that will force us to reconsider how youth sports are offered to our kids.

Let’s Do What Is Best for Kids

We should, therefore, consider what is best for the kids, not as a watered-down version of what adults identify with, but as the means to positive youth development we all believe is one of the primary benefits of youth sport participation. Unfortunately, the positive benefits do not occur on their own – they need to be taught and reinforced by parents, teachers, and qualified coaches for benefit to be realized.

Motor skill competence, conflict resolution, and teamwork, for example do not happen on their own. We all have seen examples of players with sport-specific skill that is limited by their lack of overall motor skill competence. We have also seen teams with star players that should, on paper, be unbeatable yet they never learn to function as a team. To see what might be possible for our youth a quick review of positive youth development is helpful.

Youth sport and physical activity participation are multi-factorial and include access to and opportunity for participation in a wide variety of sports and activities; attention to positive physical, social, and psychological development of youth; and the influence of social and cultural norms for how we value rewards, winning, and participation in lifelong sport and physical activity. Positive youth development emphasizes that positive youth development occurs when “opportunities to develop competencies through interactions with important others in family, peer, school, and community settings” are purposefully implemented.8

Successful programs include social, psychological, and physical assets, such as motor skill competence, self-determined motivation toward sport and physical activity, and support from significant adults and peers.7 If these assets are not properly developed, children and youth may drop out, no longer have fun, and resist continued participation in sport and physical activity of any kind, which is exactly what we are seeing in youth sport.

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Youth Sports the Right Way

What is the purpose of your youth sports program? Hopefully it is to purposefully develop physical, psychological, and social assets for all youth. Within many current long-term sports development programs the concept of physical literacy is being used to describe a person that moves with poise, economy, and confidence in a wide variety of physically challenging situations.1

Consistent with the intended tenets of physical literacy, however, positive youth development pays attention to these assets for all youth in a variety of settings, on a variety of surfaces, and physical capacities (balance, coordination, flexibility, agility, control, precision, strength, power, endurance, and the ability to move at different speeds and distances) as appropriate to each individual’s endowment, with the intended outcome “to value and take responsibility for maintaining purposeful physical pursuits/activities throughout the life course.”9 How many youth sports programs can claim to instill this value in all participants?

To end the current issues and controversies in youth sports, adults need to step up to the proverbial plate and insist that there is not only a level playing field for all participants to develop physical literacy, but also to develop all physical, psychological, and social assets leading to success in athletics and in life. Check the vision, mission, and purpose statement for the youth league in which you, your family, extended family, and friends participate. Is physical literacy and positive youth development included? How is it implemented and measured?

Perhaps the current youth sports system needs an overhaul, especially at the younger developmental stages, in order to ensure proper physical and psychosocial development of all kids, thereby creating a new youth sports paradigm.


1. Balyi, I. and Hamilton, A. (2004). Long-term athlete development: trainability in childhood and adolescence windows of opportunity, optimal trainability. National Coaching Institute British Columbia & Advanced Training and Performance Ltd.

2. Little League Baseball (2013). History of Little League. Accessed January 31, 2014.

3. Major League Baseball (2013). The Commissionership: A Historical Perspective. Accessed January 31, 2014.

4. Pop Warner Football (2013). History of Pop Warner. Accessed January 31, 2014.

5. Pro Football Hall of Fame (2013). History: Birth of pro football. Accessed January 31, 2014.

6. Vaeyens, R, Lenoir, M, Williams, A., and Philappaerts, R. (2008). “Talent identification and development programmes in sport: current models and future directions.” Sports Medicine. 38(9): 703-714.

7. Wiese-Bjornstal,D.M.,& LaVoi, N.M. (2007). “Girls’ physical activity participation: Recommendations for best practices, programs, policies, and future research.” In M.J. Kane & N.M. LaVoi (Eds.), The 2007 Tucker Center Research Report, Developing physically active girls: An evidence-based multidisciplinary approach (pp. 63-90). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

8. Weiss MR, Wiese-Bjornstal DM. (2009). “Promoting positive youth development through physical activity.” President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports Research Digest. 10(3):1-8.

9. Whitehead, M. (2001). “The concept of physical literacy.European Journal of Physical Education, 6, 127-138.

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