Youth Sports Teaches More Than Just Competitiveness

By Janis Meredith | Posted 5/26/2020

Competitive youth sports are drawing kids in at earlier and earlier ages. Or maybe I should say, they’re drawing the parents in sooner and sooner.

In an article titled What Rep Sports are Really Doing to Our Kids, author Courtney Shea says this:

It all starts so innocently: A kid joins the neighborhood house league, shows the slightest bit of aptitude, and a coach from one of the more competitive leagues (rep, division, academy—the terminology varies depending on the sport and location) will suggest taking it to the next level. And from there, she says, the system has a way of sucking kids and parents in—the camps, the private lessons.

Shea goes on to point the finger at early specialization and the competitiveness that results from it as the cause for many children quitting sports early due to burnout.

John O’Sullivan, founder of Changing the Game Project agrees that kids being pushed into competitive sports at an early age are not becoming more competitive, they’re becoming bitter.

In her practice as a mental performance coach, Beth McCharles works with high-performance athletes of all ages to help them manage the emotional and psychological demands around competition. Over the past decade, she says it’s been disconcerting to see how early the debilitating pressure is being felt. “Anxiety among kids is rising like you wouldn’t believe—it’s young people who are feeling so stressed out about not performing at their best and letting their parents down,” McCharles says. This pressure of expectation sometimes makes kids decide to quit rather than fail. And while most of us tend to associate parental pressure with horrible hockey dads hurling expletives at six-year-olds, the reality is that damaging behavior is often subtler: It’s the parent who reminds their kid that they had to take time off work to get them to practice or alludes to the financial investment being made or focuses too much on outcomes.

Is There Any Good News?

In answer to the question, “what are youth sports doing to our kids?” Shea does a good job pointing out the downfalls and traps that can ruin the youth sports experience for kids, but I’d like to answer that question in a different way.

Or maybe I should rephrase the question to “what CAN youth sports be doing to our kids?”

In answer to that question, there is a lot of good news. Over and over again, I see kids learning about and practicing teamwork, compassion, and persistence. I see them learning leadership, humility, and self-control.

I’ve seen the value of youth sports lived out in the lives of my own three grown kids, now 26, 29, and 32. I truly believe that they are strong and compassionate adults partly because of the lessons they learned playing sports from preschool to college.

I saw them struggle, grow, cry, and succeed and in the end, come out way ahead of some of their peers whose parents did not let youth sports teach the valuable lessons that it can. Those parents interfered, rescued, and pushed their kids to the point that their child either quit early or continued to play while suffering from entitlement issues.

Youth sports never should be an end in itself. It’s a means to an end–that end being this: that kids learn the life skills they need to become strong, healthy adults and leaders in society. This is what the focus of youth sports should be, not early specialization.

Janis Meredith is a family life coach who wants to help all parents raise champions. You can find out more at


USA Football's new model for youth football is designed to make the game safer by reducing contact and by teaching the game based on an athlete's age, the skill they are learning and game type.