Why Kids Play Sports


By John O'Sullivan

This blog originally appeared 17/01/17 in John's personal blog at and it is reproduced here with his kind permission.

“What do you think is going to change in the next ten years?”

That is a question that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos gets all the time. He thinks that is an interesting question, but not the best one people could ask.

“I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’” said Bezos in an interview with venture capitalist Bill Gurley. “And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two, because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time…..In our retail business, we know that customers want low prices, and I know that’s going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery; they want vast selection. It’s impossible to imagine a future 10 years from now where a customer comes up and says, ‘Jeff, I love Amazon; I just wish the prices were a little higher,’ [or] ‘I love Amazon; I just wish you’d deliver a little more slowly.’ Impossible.”

As a result, Amazon invests its’ time, energy and finances into the things that won’t be changing, instead of worrying about or trying to predict the things that are changing. It’s a sound strategy that has paid off handsomely for Amazon.

What if we did the same in youth sports? What if we stopped worrying about everything that changes, and instead focus on the one thing that does not?

We have had many changes recently – and will continue to see changes – in the youth sports landscape. In the US alone, we have seen a calendar year change in youth soccer dismantle teams. We have seen the introduction of American Development Models in almost every sport, small-sided games initiatives, and restrictions on things like heading in soccer and checking in hockey.

On a larger scale, we have the rise of youth sports as big business, as well as more paid coaches in the ranks, instead of volunteers. We have tryouts and travel sports being pushed to younger ages, which has resulted in the demise of in town leagues and created financial and commitment barriers to entry. There are a lot of things changing out there.

But one thing has not changed.

Why kids play sports.

Do they play sports because they get to go to tournaments, or because of the promise of a trophy for participation? Do they play to get a scholarship? Are these the things that motivate them to use up so much of their childhood? Or is the answer something much more simple?

The answer, according to every piece of research I have ever read, in nearly 9 out of 10 athletes surveyed, is this:

“Because it’s fun. I play sports because I enjoy them.”

Children play sports because it brings them enjoyment. Adults continue to play sports because it brings them enjoyment. Even pros play because they love to play, and when it stops being enjoyable, they retire. We all seek out things that we enjoy doing, and avoid things we do not. Why would kids be any different?

When Amanda Visek of George Washington University asked children in 2014 why they played sports, 9 out of 10 said because it was fun. When asked what made sports fun, here were their top answers:

Trying your best

When the coach treats a player with respect

Getting playing time

Playing well as a team

Getting along with teammates

Being active

Much farther down the list we find winning (48), playing in tournaments (63), private training with specialized coaches (66), and my favorite, taking team pictures (81). In a nutshell, kids want excitement, support, and positive interactions with their peers and the adults. Those things bring enjoyment.

Further age specific research by Paul McCarthy and Marc Jones has found that poor coaching and punishment for mistakes take the enjoyment away for younger children, while peer rivalries, overemphasis on winning, and excessive training and expectations suck the enjoyment out of sport for older athletes. Does any of this sound familiar, if not with your child in sports, perhaps in your own job?

I had lunch with a friend the other day, a former NCAA Division I college athlete. He lives in southern California, a place that seems to be the epicenter of the adult driven, hyper competitive race to the top in both academics and athletics that serves the needs of the adults, but rarely the kids. (I wrote an article a while back called “The Race to Nowhere in Youth Sports” that discusses that topic, and it’s our most popular blog ever.) His daughter is a travel soccer player, but he could already see that her path was unlikely sustainable.

“It’s kind of funny,” he said, “but my nine year old has played more consecutive months of soccer at this point then I ever did growing up. Her season never ends.”

“I don’t think that’s funny at all,” I replied. “It’s sad.”

“I know what you mean,” he chuckled. “The coach is a great guy, with great intentions, and he asked us recently what more he could do for us to make the experience better. I said ‘Schedule less stuff.’ I am already seeing friends of my daughter saying they don’t want to go to practice. They are already burning out, and they are nine!”

His story echoed a recent email I received from a coaching colleague. He decided to give his nine-year old soccer team the months of November and December off, after playing straight through since the previous spring. His coaching director told him via email that was not happening. “They have already had two weeks off,” the director said. “They need to get back to practice.”

Tournaments. Private coaching. Excessive travel. Year round commitments for very young kids despite what the science says. Does this make sports more enjoyable? Or does it turn kids’ games into adultified versions that sap enjoyment and focus on things that tend to impress the adults, but not so much the kids.

Why are we so scared to listen to the kids when they say “please make this enjoyable?” Please give us time to try other things, or simply hang out with our friends.

Why are we afraid that our kids will fall behind unless they play year round? Why are the only choices for kids these days to seemingly play only one sport continuously, year round with few breaks, or worse, become multi-sport specialists, running from practice to practice, day after day, to the point where we have joyless zombies running around our athletic fields?

This path does not produce better athletes. It produces bitter athletes who get hurt, burnout, and quit sports altogether. There is a better way.

Let’s refocus on what has not, and will not, change.

Let’s focus on why kids play sports!

Here are some thoughts on how we can do this:

First, it is critical for coaches and parents to understand that when it comes to sports, enjoyment and pleasure are not the same thing. Take the analogy of running a marathon. Any distance runner can tell you that miles 20-26 bring very little pleasure, but they still enjoy running. They might be sore, dehydrated and beat down, but they can’t wait to go for their next run. That is enjoyment. It’s the happiness you get by pursuing something you love doing. We can make sports serious, make training challenging and difficult, while still having players saying “when is the next practice?”

Second, ask your child “why do you play sports?” Listen carefully to his or her answer. Have them define what makes sports enjoyable to them, what they want from a coach, and who they would like to play with. As they get older, yes, you might have to tell them that in order to pursue their goals in a sport, such as making a high school team or playing in college, they might have to step it up a notch environment wise. But when that time comes, let it be their decision to make the jump. If you force it, you may lose them.

Third, honestly evaluate what sporting path your child is on. According to researchers such as Dave Collins and Jean Cote (see citations below), some athletes go down a sports participant pathway, and others a sports performance pathway. Depending upon a child’s age and stage of development, some kids play sports simply because they enjoy being with their friends, like learning, and get excitement from competition. Others gravitate to a high-performance pathway, where they may have more of a long term focus on improvement, and display athletic, social and emotional abilities that exceed many of their peers.

When we force kids to tryout for a high-commitment, performance-pathway sports team, and all they want is to play and be with friends, they will burnout, lose the love of the game, and quit. By the same token, a performance focused child will grow bored of a bunch of teammates who have poor commitment, don’t work hard in practice, and don’t have similar goals and reasons for being out there.

Fourth, be patient, and help your child foster love of the game! Your 9-year-old soccer player who only made the B team is just fine. Your 11-year-old basketball player who isn’t playing AAU is not a lost cause. Be patient. Every child develops at different ages and on an individual timeline, and your best contribution is to help them fall in love with a sport so that they actually want to play and practice enough to get good at it. The greatest athletics-related gift you can give your child is love of sport. They will take it from there.

Finally, help them find the environment that they are asking for – not the one you hope they want, or that they have the “potential” to play in. Putting a participation-focused child in a performance-focused environment is a recipe for disaster. Potential means little without the focus and commitment, and that only comes with enjoyment.

The next ten years will see numerous changes in sports, just as the last ten have. But one thing that I cannot see changing, and has never changed throughout human history, is that kids will do more of the things they enjoy, and less of the things they do not enjoy. Children play sports because they are enjoyable, and the quit when they are not.

Lets ask the kids what they want more of, and what makes the experience more enjoyable, and do more of that.

As Amazon has shown us, the model works!

Follow John @CTGProjectHQ

Additional Resources:

Collins, D., Bailey, R., Ford, P. A., MacNamara, Á., Toms, M., & Pearce, G. (2012). Three worlds: New directions in participant development in sport and physical activity. Sport, education and society, 17(2), 225-243.

Côté, J., & Fraser-Thomas, J. (2007). Youth involvement in sport. Sport psychology: A Canadian perspective, 270-298.

McCarthy, P. J., & Jones, M. V. (2007). A qualitative study of sport enjoyment in the sampling years. Sport Psychologist, 21(4), 400.


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