The Downfall of Youth Sports – Part 3: The Effects of Sport Specialization

An email from our local soccer club that went out to all under 8yr. and under 9yr. families:
I’m writing today to discuss the U9 (birthyear 2009) playing options this winter and for this coming spring/summer league. Our Rec soccer program will only offer U9 soccer through July 2018. After that, Rec soccer will only encompass U5-U8 ages.
Any player currently playing U9 in Rec will be allowed to play U9 through Rec this summer (2018) but we would also like to extend the option of jumping onto a competitive team before the summer. We are hoping to form 1-2 MORE U9 teams on both the boys’ and girls’ sides.
I’ve put together a little Q&A for parents considering jumping into Competitive (aka “Traveling”)…
Q. What are the expectations of competitive?
A. Players will practice 2x/week (schedule set by parent-coach), with a game 1x/week (Girls T/Th game days, Boys M/W game days).
Q. What is the cost for competitive?
A. Spring/Summer fees run around $200 for 8-10 weeks of league play. There are no coaches fees. Teams will decide as a group, if they wish to play in any weekend tournaments. This would be an additional cost (approx. $30/ea. tournament). [We just paid over $280 for my son to play his first season of competitive, not including tournaments – not $200].
Q. What is the cost/info on uniforms?
A. Good news! We are just now ordering for the next 2 year uniform cycle. Uniforms will be in this January. There will be 3 uniform try-on options next week…
[Soccer club] staff will be recording sizes and/or entering your order online (I’m not sure if they’ll be ready to enter now or not. Either way, I do not think payment is due at this moment). The cost for the full uniform kit will be around $125-130. [So, after we order uniforms we will be paying over $400 in order for my son to play summer soccer – not including tournaments, travel expenses, or extra training].
Q. What are the winter dome training options?
A. Winter dome training is an optional “add on”. [Our club] would like all of our players to play 1x/week during the winter. Winter dome training would be the perfect time for your kiddo to get acquainted with the other U9/10 players.
Q. Why should I consider moving my U9 to competitive this summer?
A. Playing competitive this summer will give your player a season “under their belt” before the U10 competitive tryout and season.
Q. How far will I have to travel for games?
A. Each team will have 8-10 league games. Half will be home games. Away game locations can vary; [most locations will be within a 1/2 hr. drive].
Q. What if I have a U8 (2010) that is ready for Competitive?
A. Players that have already played Rec soccer and wish to move into Competitive “early”, will be accepted, as long as there are roster spots available (and they do not take the place of a true U9 wishing to play). U8 play-ups are “first come, first served.”
Q. I see no reason not to play Competitive.
A. That is not a question. 🙂


Crossroads – this is where my family is at within our youth soccer lives. In October, we were notified by our city’s soccer club that they would be discontinuing recreational soccer for kids that are nine years of age and older starting in the summer of 2019. This summer will be my son’s first year of competitive soccer. My daughter, who is currently in first grade will be forced to try-out this coming summer if she wants to be placed on a team.
From here, she will be placed on a team (one of the club leaders expressed his intentions of making sure every child who tries out gets placed on a team, as they don’t want to cut players if at all possible), and will start her competitive soccer career that following fall – at 7 yrs. old.
Following the fall season, players are asked to pay for additional training throughout the winter. As mentioned above – the club would like all of their players to play at least once per week throughout the off-season (winter and early spring).
As soon as the snow melts, club players are out practicing again in the spring to prepare for the summer soccer season – at 7 and 8-years old.
Competitive soccer: a season without end and a price increase that is six times the amount we currently pay for both of our kids to play summer and fall recreational soccer (competitive will be roughly $1,800-$2,200 to have both of our children play whereas we currently pay $300 for both children to play recreational soccer in the summer and fall). These costs for traveling sports is actually below average. According to The Aspen Institute’s “Project Play”, the average traveling team spends $2,266.00 annually on a single child’s sport.
Within the past few months, I have been contacted by several parents on my soccer team that are worried about the upcoming changes. So far I have three players that don’t plan on returning. Parents can’t afford the price to play competitive soccer, they want their children to be able to participate in multiple activities throughout the year, and feel that sport specialization at young ages is not appropriate. Most of these players are girls that have been with my team for several seasons now. They are players that have grown to love the game, and who want to play, but the club expectations are too much.

Declining Participation in Youth Sports

These problems are not only happening in the sport of soccer. The BBC recently published an article by Tom Farrey called “Have adults ruined children’s sport?“, where a disturbing infographic depicts the sharp decline in participation in youth sports:
Children's participation in sport
Another image on the post depicts perfectly manicured soccer fields at one of the largest youth soccer tournaments in the United States.
Football pitches at a tournament in New Jersey
More than 600 “elite” teams of 9 to 15-year old players amass on these rural New Jersey fields, and thousands of parents decorate the sidelines. Organizers for this particular event can reportedly rake in over $1,200 per team. This does not count hotel and travel expenses. This is on top of what parents already pay for club soccer.
Farray, Aspen Institute, writes:

What the drone can’t see is how many other children – those who aren’t early bloomers, or whose families don’t have the funds, or time, to take part – have fallen away from the game.

They are often unable to join the best teams, which have the best coaches, training environments, and access to college scouts.

Football [American soccer] has declined among those left behind, with fewer children joining either local teams, or playing informal games in the park.

Since 2011, the number of six- to 17-year-olds who play football [American soccer] regularly has fallen 9%, to 4.2 million, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.

The number of children who touch a football [soccer ball] at least once a year, in any setting, was down 15%.

Increased demands of time and money aren’t the only negative effects of sport specialization.

The Cost of Leaving”The Sandlot”

Have you seen the 1993 movie “The Sandlot“? The movie is about a young boy who moves into a new neighborhood. This boy befriends a group of boys who get together at the sandlot to play baseball after school. The boys have many adventures together, but their passion is baseball. They play every day after school – no parents – their own rules. Fifty to one hundred years ago, most sport was sandlot-type sport. Today, most sport is adult-run, year-round, repetitive training.

According to Hawkins and Metheny (2001), year-round, repetitive training has led to an increased incidence of musculoskeletal injuries from overuse. They estimate that 50% of all youth sport injuries can be attributed to overuse-type mechanisms. Jayanthi et al. (2013), found that for most sports, there is no evidence that intense training and early specialization are necessary to achieve elite status. They list that sport specialization has the following risks:

  • higher rates of injury
  • increased psychological stress (player burnout)
  • quitting sports at a young age

A poll from National Alliance for Youth Sports estimates that 70% of kids who play in organized sport will quit by the age of 13 because it’s not fun anymore. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children delay sport specialization until late adolescence (15 years of age or older) and encourages children to play in multiple sports.

For the parents, coaches, and trainers that believe that early sport specialization will develop an elite athlete, Brenner (2016), Council On Sports Medicine And Fitness, states:

 Studies have shown that Division 1 NCAA athletes are more likely to have played multiple sports in high school and that their first organized sport was different from their current one. Many examples exist of professional athletes who have learned skills that cross over to their sport by playing a variety of sports into high school and even college. There were 322 athletes invited to the 2015 National Football League Scouting Combine, 87% of whom played multiple sports in high school and 13% of whom only played football. Other studies in elite athletes have shown that intense training did not start until late adolescence and that these athletes played other sports before specializing… In addition, athletes who engaged in sport-specific training at a young age had shorter athletic careers.

Out of Options

I have spent the last year researching soccer options for my children. We are not ready to have our children specialize in a sport at the ages of seven and nine, but we don’t have any options. Our club will be offering recreational soccer through the age of eight. Likewise, our community recreation department offers recreational soccer through the age of nine. When I approached the club about other options, they replied that this is the direction youth sports is going in. You can check around the state. Unfortunately, they were correct. Almost every city has their own club, training academy, and year-round program with costs that are equal to or more expensive than our city’s.

When I approached our community recreation department I was told that they plan on continuing to offer recreational soccer through the age of nine. I asked them if there was any possibility of offering recreational soccer to kids for a few more years, as this is what many families have been looking for. They replied that they didn’t want to go down that path because they didn’t think there would be enough interested players, and they didn’t want to step on toes. I told them that I bet they would be surprised by how many people would be interested, and that this is exactly what our community needed. A recreational soccer option where players of any skill level could come and play the game of soccer with and against other kids in the community. Currently, our community recreational department offers fall soccer for the reasonable price of $45, which includes a jersey.

Give Sport Back to Our Children

In the past three weeks, we have explored the effects of the overuse of individual skill training in youth sports, the effects of not keeping score, and the effects of youth sport specialization – three facets of modern youth sports that are driving children away from playing sports. Parents, coaches, and trainers, I implore you to decrease the time spent on individual skill training and increase the time spent on game play, put the competition and meaning back into the game by allowing children to keep score, and contemplate abstaining from sport specialization, especially at the younger ages – and supporting community recreation programs. Bring the fun back to the games. Give the sports back to our children.

Thank you so very much for joining me on this journey.




Brenner, J.S. (2016). Sports Specialization and Intensive Training in Young Athletes. Pediatrics, 138(3)doi10.1542/peds.2016-2148

HAWKINS, D., and J. METHENY. (2001). Overuse Injuries in Youth Sports: Biomechanical    considerations. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., 33(10), 1701–1707.

Jayanthi, N., Pinkham, C., Dugas, L., Patrick, B., & LaBella, C. (2013). Sports Specialization in Young Athletes: Evidence-Based Recommendations. Sports Health5(3), 251–257.



Author’s background: Erin is certified in K-12 physical education and adapted physical education with a master’s degree in physical education pedagogy. She is also a long-time soccer player and youth soccer coach who loves to share her love of the game with young athletes.

15 Replies to “The Downfall of Youth Sports – Part 3: The Effects of Sport Specialization”

  1. I agree with you, wholeheartedly! Let’s put the fun back into sports! We need our kids out there playing. They need more physical activity! They’re spending too much time in front of computer screens!

    1. Yes! Way too much time in front of the screen. And, you are exactly right – we need to put the fun back into sports to coax those kids off of the couch. 🙂

  2. That is absolutely insane! This is one reason my kids will never be on swim team in our area, where the expense and time commitment (if not yet the travel) starts out at the level you describe at ages 4-5!

    1. Isn’t that sad, Flossie? I’m always heartbroken when I hear that children can’t play a sport they are interested in because of the ridiculous demands (money, time, travel, etc.). Starting this at the ages of 4 and 5 is RIDICULOUS! I sincerely hope that something changes in the near future so that children can get back to playing. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

  3. Erin, your work on this series is masterful. You provide evidence and information as well as a point of view. I can feel your passion for youth sports and your posts have brought more conversations into my home about the topic.
    Sport should be fun. It should be a means of building much more than our muscles. Life skills come from play. What’s interesting is adults have rec leagues, but we can’t support them for children? Isn’t that odd? When pre-teens and teens need “sandlot” style connection with their peers we take it away. I don’t get it.
    My child wants to do nothing but play. In schools “growth mindset” is much talked about. And I love it. But where is the growth mindset in sports? Getting better rather than “being good” has to start somewhere. It bums me out that at nine years old it’s already “too late” to begin the process of falling in love with a sport and wanting to get better. Some kids do fall in love with the sport right away, but others don’t. They need time to figure it out.
    Thank you for this series. I learned a lot.

    1. Dear Angela, thank you, thank you, thank you! Thank you for always being a support, thank you for always reading, and thank you for your thoughtful and meaningful comments.

      First of all, I’m so happy my posts have spurred some conversation in your home. I’m hoping they will do the same for others. Change has to start somewhere, right?

    2. Dear Angela, thank you, thank you, thank you! Thank you for always being a support, thank you for always reading, and thank you for your thoughtful and meaningful comments.

      First of all, I’m so happy my posts have spurred some conversation in your home. I’m hoping they will do the same for others. Change has to start somewhere, right? I bet you can imagine the number of hours J and I have spent discussing this topic. 🙂

      I also have to say that your posts have also sparked discussion in our home. My son started talking about brain bugs just two days ago. I (we 🙂 )look forward to learning more through your Cognitive Bias series.

      Back to the topic: You mention one of my biggest peeves with this new modern youth sports system – there is nowhere for new and interested players to start. If children want to play, they have to dedicate a lot of money and time in playing competitive sports. There are no introductory environments (recreational environments) once children turn 10-years of age. The competitive environment is great for those who live and breathe that particular sport (I think my daughter is one of those), but most kids are not – so they need something else. They need other playing opportunities.

      Thank you so very much for your kind words, Angela. I’m so happy you enjoyed the series.

  4. Great job Erin 🤓I really enjoyed this series
    You did a great job getting the facts and how parent s feel about how there children sports are run 👍
    I hope your series is read and people learn from it and all your time getting it out there🤓 cb

    1. Thank you so very much, and I’m so glad you enjoyed the posts. I hope the same as you, that awareness is spread. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment! 😊

  5. Oh Erin this is so sad. I mean, that is a huge amount of money to spend on such young children. That is a massive barrier to so many families. Plus it sounds like they’d have little time to try out other sports.

    Can they try soccer in a more leisurely way in something like a school club?

    1. I wish they could, but we literally have no other options to play after age 9. It’s club or nothing at all. This goes for everywhere in our state. Even the community recreational department (through the school district) cuts their leagues off at age 9. The reasons? Because they don’t think they’ll have enough players and because they don’t want to step on any toes (local soccer club). I’ve tried asking the club and the community rec. department about adding rec. leagues and it’s a no-go. I think I’m just going to have to push harder or go in a totally different directions. I know there are many kids looking for other options. It really is a sad thing. The same thing is happening to football, baseball, softball, and hockey. Basketball is the only sport that offers recreational leagues through high school. It’s just crazy! Thanks so much for reading and for your thoughts, Josy! Happy New Year!

  6. drallisonbrown says: Reply

    Erin, this series has been fantastic! You have bravely touched on a number of hot-button issues that affect all of us. In this installment, you deftly uncovered the primary motivator, in my opinion – money. It is truly a crime to first, steal the sport from the children, and second, steal that kind of money from parents. In effect, an entire subsection of society (mid to low socioeconomic status) is simply erased from the equation. At a time when the healthcare system is screaming about the obesity epidemic, what do we do? We eliminate PE from the public school curriculum and our communities shut the door on low-cost rec programs! By the way, this happened to my children, as well, around the same age, here in SC (and that was about 10 years ago).

    1. Again, thank you for your spot-on comment, Allison. Yes, money is a huge component of the issues we are seeing in the sport world (and the education world). When I asked one of the directors about the high cost to participate in club soccer, he replied: “If parents really want their son or daughter to participate, they will find a way to pay the money. If not, well that’s just the way it is.” It makes me sick that youth sports are unreachable for some – especially when this nonsense starts at 8, 9, or 10-years old. An all-inclusive youth league needs to be developed so ALL children can play, or try a sport without going broke or dedicating their entire life to it. I could go on forever, so thanks again for your kind words and thoughtful comments!

  7. John M Walker says: Reply

    Erin, I just read this article on youth sports. Your spot on! Money for clubs that entice children with the idea that they child could be thew next Pelee or Mia Ham, only to have their dreams dashed by over exception. Starting to professionalize the sport at such early ages creates burnout! And the child has had his/her childhood torn away. The friends from sandlot soccer, baseball , basketball or any other sport last a life time, and the memories of pickup games are even more exciting than being on a club team. I pray that parents look at their children as a gift from God. Not someone to be exploited by their parents dreams of faded glory.

    1. Exactly how it should be, John! I have a feeling that my kids won’t see the change, but I hope someday soon a change can start to happen. I also wonder how successful a rec league could be if local parents started their own league for their children. This would send a strong message to clubs everywhere. Thanks so much for your heart-felt comment, John!

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