Children's Hospital Colorado

Playing to Win: When Youth Sports Push Too Hard

young girl high fives opponent at soccer game

No doubt about it: sports are great for kids. From teamwork to perseverance to a love of staying active, athletics teach kids not just the fundamentals of the sports they’re playing, but fundamental skills they’ll use for the rest of their lives.

Increasingly, however, professionals like Children’s Hospital Colorado rehabilitation psychologist Tess Simpson, MD, and pediatric sports medicine physician Katherine Dahab, MD, see a troubling side to youth sports.

“They seem much more competitive than they used to be,” says Dr. Dahab. “We’re seeing kids playing one sport year-round, starting club sports a lot younger. It sometimes seems like society is pushing beyond ‘Let’s play and have fun and learn life lessons’ to ‘Let’s train, let’s get this college scholarship, let’s win.’”

The pressure for perfection in sports

Everybody likes winning, of course. The problem comes when a focus on perfection — whether in pursuit of winning or of some longer-term goal like a scholarship or a pro career — overwhelms any other consideration.

That’s a lot of pressure for kids, and it can have consequences.

“I’m seeing more kids where their stress levels are meeting clinical thresholds for anxiety disorders,” says Dr. Simpson. “When the focus is on perfection and winning, kids miss out on learning skills to cope with mistakes and loss, which are ultimately inevitable.”

“We’re also seeing more overuse injuries in younger and younger athletes,” adds Dr. Dahab, “because of year-round training in one sport. They’re stressing the same body part over and over.”

Keeping sports fun to avoid burnout

Too much training in one sport can also lead to burnout: Kids become so physically and emotionally fatigued by a sport that they can no longer perform, no matter how much they may want to. Even for athletes aiming for a scholarship, training to burnout won’t help.

Rather, says Dr. Dahab, parents should encourage kids to find their own groove. Let them try a variety of sports, with periods of rest and unstructured activity between seasons. In the end, playing more than one sport will not only take strain off their bodies, but may also make them better overall athletes.

“There’s plenty of evidence that multi-sport athletes have better health and physical development,” she says. “They have a bigger physical literacy, because they’re learning and strengthening a lot of different motions, instead of just a few.”

Ultimately, sports should be fun. It doesn’t help anyone — neither kids nor parents nor scholarship committees — if they’re not. Often, parents unwittingly put more pressure on kids to achieve than they realize.

“They older they get, the more kids develop their own clear sense of what is most important to them,” says Dr. Simpson. “They can and should make their own decisions about how competitive they want to be — and parents should trust that their future is going to work out for them, regardless of what choice they make.”

Learn more about our Sports Medicine Center at Children’s Hospital Colorado. 

Answers in your inbox

Expert advice delivered directly to you. Get weekly tips