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The Youth Sports Experience
Merlin K. L. Bicking, Ph. D., Woodbury, MN
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[Author’s Note: Research on this article began as my daughters became more heavily involved in youth sports programs. After seeing some disturbing trends, I began to investigate what various “experts” thought about the youth sports experience. I was surprised at what I found! Although this discussion refers to youth soccer programs, it isn’t hard to see how these issues apply to other sports as well. As you read this article, remember that this discussion is focusing on the experiences of the youngest athletes (age ten and younger). The situation changes, and so do priorities, by the age of fourteen.]

[Additional Note: This article continues to be of interest to readers, five years after it's original publication. I regularly receive comments from around the country, and the world, and "on the sidelines." Keep writing! I enjoy the correspondence. Unfortunately, events in the sports world over the last few years suggest that the situation is getting worse, not better, so I have added some additonal comments to update my thoughts on the subject. - MKLB, November, 2004]

[Additional Update: More than 10 years after the original publication, there is still interest in this topic. Unfortunately, the list of examplescontinues to grow - assaults on game officials, parents beating up their kids for losing, a hockey player paralyzed by a check from behind. Incredible! We are pleased to be part of the discussion and encourage you to read, reflect, and discuss. Contact us if you have questions or needs. - MKLB, August, 2012)

It’s that time of year again. It seems like it's always "that time of year." Parents are dragging themselves and their children, like lemmings, to the nearest soccer facility for a tryout, practice, or game. For many, this happens year round, bringing kids as young as six to tryouts for “competitive” teams. After all, it’s important to learn about competition, it’s important to “win” those games, and if you don’t “make the top team,” then . . . well, what?

Watch the games and what are you likely to see?

  • Screaming coaches, screaming parents, and (ironically, much less often) bad behavior on the part of the kids involved,
  • A “win at all costs” or “winning is everything” attitude at even the youngest ages,
  • An unequal distribution of talent at young ages that allows one team to win all/most of its games while another team at the same age level loses all/most of its games,

Unfortunately, these are not isolated incidents and a similar problem seems to be reaching epidemic proportions in our society (1). We are nuts about sports and think that involving our children in more sports will have definite positive consequences. No matter the goal, we want our children to have an advantage, and we think that competitive sports participation will produce that advantage. If you discuss this situation with many parents, you will find a wide range of opinions both for and against the current situation, although many will probably express some concerns about at least some of the things that are happening. In listening to the justifications for, and benefits of, competitive sports participation the following reasons are often given:

  • It’s good for the kids,
  • It’s what the kids want,
  • Everyone else is doing it so we have to,
  • It’s necessary to separate out the best performers to help them reach their full potential, and
  • It doesn’t do them any harm.

These opinions seem to be shared by many in our society, considering the adulation given to the most successful athletes at nearly every level. However, a surprising number of parents also indicate that they are concerned with the general trend of pushing kids to be more involved, to spend more time, and to be more competitive at earlier and earlier ages. And recent episodes of bad behavior by both parents and players point to some serious issues that need to be addressed.

Do competitive sports really help young children? Will they give the child an advantage over other kids? What do the experts, both inside and outside the soccer community, say about this situation? The answers from the experts range from “not necessarily” to an emphatic “no.” While no two authors are ever in complete agreement, some ideas are consistent across different reports, publications, and researchers. We will explore these ideas in the context of the five reasons listed above. I will call them the Myths About The Value of Sports For Kids. In the following discussion we will look at each myth in terms of what researchers and various sports figures actually have to say about this idea.

Myth 1: “It’s good for the kids!"

Myth 2: “It’s what the kids want!”

Myth 3: “Everyone Else is Doing It So We Have To!”  

Myth 4: “It’s necessary to separate out the best performers to help them reach their full potential!”

Myth 5: “It doesn’t do them any harm!”

Final Comments

I have tried to objectively review my own experiences, those of parents I’ve talked with, and various “experts” inside and outside of the sports community. There are many positives that sports participation offers to our children; we have all seen them in our own families. However, simple participation is not a guarantee of success, on the field or in life, and we must be diligent in monitoring the experiences that our children have.

A Proposed Structure for Youth Soccer (and Other Youth Sports Programs)

Our society is filled with problem-finders.  It’s easy to point out problems, flaws, and errors, especially in someone else. It’s not as easy to be a problem-solver, but we should try anyway. Rather than simply complain about the current state of many youth sports programs, we should look for better ways to design them.

There are many ways to design a positive sports experience for kids. Here is one way that will stimulate discussion, and hopefully generate many more new ideas.

This proposed structure is based on the following goals:

  • To maximize participation in all programs, particularly at the younger ages.
  • To enhance player development for all players, not just those that happen to be advanced at a particular age level.
  • To make soccer an enjoyable experience for all participants, coaches, and families.
  • To use the first three goals to produce as many highly competitive teams/players as possible at the older age levels.

The proposed structure is based on the following assumptions:

  • The Myths described here are true to at least some extent, and we must create a system that minimizes the influences of these problems.
  • There is a tremendous difference in needs, interests, abilities, and motivational levels between a age-9 and age-14 player. One structure cannot fulfill the needs of all.
  • There is a gradual change from a typical “play for fun” age-9 attitude to a “we want to be State Champions!” age-14 goal. Any program should recognize the tremendous changes and stresses that adolescence places on our children. The program should be developmentally appropriate (physically and mentally) for all ages.

Program Structure

It is clear that there are (at least) two different development stages that exist in children’s sports activities: 1) the “child” level which is motivated primarily by fun and social factors, and 2) a more complex “adult-like” level where players are able to make intelligent decisions about their own involvement.As noted earlier, there is a gradual transition between these two stages that also must be accommodated.

The difficult questions relate to where we draw the lines.The developmental experts indicate that the cognitive skills required to appreciate an abstract concept such as “winning” really don’t start to develop until about age 10 - 12, and the process is nearly complete by the mid-teens. In an effort to begin the discussion, I have chosen ages 10 and 14, respectively, as representative of the boundaries for the different developmental levels. Once we have chosen these boundaries, a separate structure can be designed for each of the three developmental groups: 10 and younger, 11 - 13, and 14 and older.

Age 10 and Younger:

“Coaches of the youngest players must provide an environment where fun, not winning, is the main objective”
Steve Sampson, Former U.S. National Team Coach

The goal of the program at this level is to create an atmosphere where kids can learn skills, learn the rules, and have fun. When multiple teams are created at a single age level, talent must be divided equally, with NO exceptions. This division can be accomplished with, or without, player evaluations, but it must be done equally. Coaches and parents will have to be counseled that winning is not a goal of this part of the program. True, the win-loss records will suffer, but it isn’t important to the kids, and shouldn’t be to us. In an ideal situation, each team will win/tie at least 50 percent of their games, giving them some feeling of "success" as described above.

Age 11 - 13:

This is the transitional stage in cognitive, skill, and motivational levels, and perhaps is the most important age, if not the most difficult. Although the sport suddenly becomes "competitive" at age-11 in many leagues (i.e., the age at which the league starts to officially "keep score," and tournaments have "winners" not "participants"), that doesn’t mean there is a sudden change in the players’ abilities or attitudes. Children don’t develop from fun-oriented to competitive over the summer. There must be a gradual change over these three years from the “fun” to “competitive” stage.

Use this information to structure teams. For example, if there are two age-11 teams, they might be slightly unbalanced in terms of talent, but perhaps only by one player. One age-12 team could have two extra “top” players, beyond the normal split of talent; one age-13 team could have an additional three “top” players. In this way, one team gradually emerges as the better team, in preparation for full competition at U-14. In keeping with the recommendations of many soccer experts, the formation of Premier teams in this age group should be avoided, even though the opportunity may be available.

The emphasis is still on player development, but with a stronger emphasis on team play than for age-10's. Additional effort should be spent improving the skills of the weaker players and teams, to reduce the differences in overall ability across the entire group (25). That is, make sure that the "B" team gets better coaching and training. Ironically, this is opposite of the way we do it now! Remember, the goal is to develop as many players as possible at this age.

Players should be rotated between teams as much as possible.This can be done within rules about rosters, but it will require a little more effort and a different approach to the process.The goal is to give as many kids as possible the chance to play with each other as much as possible.  Since predicting age-14 success at age-11 is not much more than an educated guess, we need to make sure every player in this age group has a chance to play with our best talent. Coaches should be rotated as well, to take advantage of differing styles and abilities.

Winning should be emphasized more in this group, but as a gradual progression from age-11 to age-13. The intent should be to structure every team so that they can win at least 50 percent of their games. However, winning is not the primary focus: it is a reward, not a goal

Similarly, expectations in terms of attitude, commitment, and performance should increase at each age level, in keeping with normal growth and development, but there should be not abrupt changes from year to year. Coaching this scheme in this age group will be challenging, and careful attention to the overall philosophy will be necessary. And, yes, the win-loss records may suffer at the younger ages, but we really shouldn’t care if we want to develop a truly competitive age-14 program.

Age 14 and Older:

“There is a place for pushing athletes to their limits. There is a time for taking the better athlete over the weaker one. This process can start in high school varsity sports” (26).
Fred Harris, President, Minnesota AAU

The success at this level should be our ultimate goal! By this age, players can begin to make adult-type decision about whether they want to make the commitment necessary to excel. We must strive to make the program as competitive and successful as the talent allows. At this level there may be elite (Premier) level teams that are clearly identified, with appropriate (objective) player evaluations, if the talent is available. Coaching quality also will be very important. If the lower age programs are successful, there will be a sufficient number of players available to choose from, and hopefully enough other players to allow formation of lower level teams, as a reward to all the other kids who participated for many years, didn’t make the top team, but want to keep playing.

If you are truly interested in developing athletic talent, then the ultimate success of age-14 and older teams should be your top priority. Anything that discourages this success should be avoided. Success at this level will bring the most visibility to the program because it will mean that you have done your job properly!

Final Comments

In summary. there isn’t any magic formula that will guarantee success for any group activity involving kids. It takes hard work and dedicated volunteers who understand the goals of the program and the needs of the kids. How can you make sure your child has a “successful” youth sports experience?

Get involved! Volunteer to help. Ask the organizers to share their organizational rules, policies, and goals with everyone. Ask them to defend these goals if you don’t agree with them, remembering the Myths we have discussed. Start reading what various “experts” think about these issues. The three books mentioned earlier are an excellent place to start. But most important, remember that time goes by too quickly, so spend it wisely. Cherish the time you spend with your child, in whatever activity you choose.

And have fun! That’s what they want to do!


Merlin Bicking, a soccer coach and father of three, lives in Woodbury, MN.

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(1) Dale Russakoff, “Kid Soccer Rule No. 1: It’s a game - not a war,” Star Tribune, October 19, 1998, pg. E1 - E2.

(2) Robert S. Griffin, “Sports in the Lives of Children and Adolescents.Success on the Field and in Life,” Praeger, Westport, CT: 1998, pg. 56.

(3) .Ibid., pg. 43.

(4) Ibid., pg. 46.

(5) Ibid., pg. 58.

(6) Aubrey H. Fine and Michael L. Sachs, “The Total Sports Experience - for Kids: A Parents’ Guide to Success in Youth Sports,” Diamond Communications, South Bend: 1997, pg. 26.

(7) Darrel J. Burnett, “Youth Sports & Self Esteem,” Masters Press, Indianapolis: 1993, pg. 40.

(8) Ibid., pg. 106.

(9) Griffin, pg. 99.

(10) “Soccer in the USA. Statistical Abstract on Soccer Participation,” Soccer Industry Council of America, Fall, 1998.

(11) Total participation: 8,646,000 in 6 - 11 age group, or 1,441,000/each year.Total college soccer programs (men and women): 1509, assume an average of 12 scholarships/4 yearprogram (a generous assumption, since the total includes Division III programs that don’t offer scholarships), or 3/year: so, 1,441,000/(3*1,509) = 318.

(12) Total participation: 4,981,000 in 12 - 17 age group, or 830,167/each year: so, 830,167/(3*1,509) = 183.

(13) Fine and Sachs, pg. 53.

(14) Burnett, pg. 108.

(15) Griffin, pg. 136.

(16) Fine and Sachs, pg. 94 - 99.

(17) Darren Treasure, “Motivation is More Than a Question of Winning and Losing,” Minnesota Soccer Times, December, 1998, pg. 9.

(18) Ronald Quinn, “Understanding Player Development,” U. S. Youth Soccer, Winter 1999, pg. 5.

(19) Griffin, pg. 121.

(20) Griffin, pg. 23.

(21) Fine and Sachs, pg. 49.

(22) Burnett, pg. 115.

(23) Griffin, pg. 37.

(24) Steve Sampson, “A Player’s Game,” U. S. Youth Soccer, Spring, 1998, pg. 10.

(25) Alan Merrick, Alan Merrick Soccer Academies, Personal Communication, September, 1998.

(26) Fred Harris (President, Minnesota AAU), “Should There Be Benchwarmers in Youth Sports?,” Woodbury Athletic Association News, December, 1998, pg. 7.


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