Getting the Priorities of Youth Sport Right

by Kristen Dieffenbach, PhD, CC-AASP

The priorities of youth sport have long been out of wack. If you ask parents, many will say they enroll their children in season upon season of adult organized play to teach things like character and sportsmanship. They want to encourage their children to be healthy and well. And above all they want the kids to have fun. And I believe that many parents do want these things. However, these noble gains are often not reflected or even noticeable if we look at what is going on in youth sport. Parents lose sight of the important things as imagined college scholarships (the reality of which is best saved for another post), the status of having a child on the ‘select team’ and the ‘my child is a star’ fantasies take over. By the time the children hit adolescence, a large percentage have dropped out of sport. While some leave sport to do other things, many drop out because it isn’t fun anymore. Worse, many more are ‘forced out’ as the only opportunities for participation become increasingly more selective and elite. And perhaps most concerning, given the obesity/health crisis in our culture, we obviously have failed to instill a love for physical activity because once children and young adults stop playing organized sport, they stop moving.

Despite the high value placed on youth sport participation in our culture- and not always for the right reasons – youth sport coaches are often only volunteers who maybe played the sport at some point. They often have little to no training in the actual coaching of the sport and worse yet, they have no training in the coaching of children and how to teach the fundamentals or foundations of the sport. It is not uncommon to see a youth football practice being run just like the ‘big boy’s’ despite the fact that there is a world of difference in physical ability, mental processing, and even basic knowledge of the game between a 6 year old and a 20 year old. Imagine the outcry if a child’s teacher was hired based only on the fact that he or she could read. Yet most parents know little more about a coach’s credentials other than where he or she played college ball.

Do we want to hope that a coach gets lucky and gets it right? Are a passion for sport and liking kids credentials enough – or is that all about what the adult wants and about what is best for the kids? Are we ok that the person coaching our kids is more interested in a city wide trophy than in the long term health and well being of the kids? Is it ok that coach knows how to throw the long ball or how to read a defensive player on a college court but doesn’t have a clue how to break these things down and teach them appropriately to second graders?

Childhood is a crucial time for skill development and learning.  Physical motor pathways are developed that will last a lifetime, self esteem and a sense of self are built, and personal preferences or dislikes for different activities are founded. A coach plays a crucial role in all of this and proper training for that coach is key. Exactly what that training should be is an important question that needs to be explored. In many other countries, the most highly trained coaches are those who work with the youngest athletes to ensure a safe and healthy foundation. This approach helps foster talent as it develops AND ensures that those less endowed with genetic gifts (which often takes years upon years to really manifest) still have a healthy foundation in being active.

In a very positive step forward, the Obama administration has announced the creation of a White House Office of Olympic, Paralympic and Youth Sport.

(June 16, 2009 –
No, this isn’t an immediate fix or a guaranteed solution. It is the creation of a dedicated effort to help better understand the needs and parameters of youth sport and make recommendations based on solid research. And it is an important opportunity for the start of an essential discussion – one that is long overdue. How do we make youth sport truly about the youth, both for their long term well being and to enhance the overall health of our population?
Kristen Dieffenbach, Ph.D., CC AASP #193
WVU – College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences
Assistant Professor – Athletic Coaching Education

2 thoughts on “Getting the Priorities of Youth Sport Right

  • July 1, 2009 at 6:52 am

    Good article.
    Just because someone knows or has played the game is no guarantee they can teach it and coach it well. It is all about priorities and understanding your constraints and end goal. Many youth football coaches dont understand that. As to character, most want to teach it, but 98% of them have NO game plan to teach it.

    • July 1, 2009 at 4:50 pm

      Thanks Dave,
      There is a lot of research happening on this topic – and one of the guys that is conducting that recently did a Podcast interview for us. Check out the piece on Soccer parents posted in early June. USA Football has sponsored some follow-up research. You’ll be able to read it here soon.


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