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5 things parents can do to keep their kids from quitting sports

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For too many kids, sports end too soon.

A 2018 study by the Aspen Institute found that the average age for a kid quitting an organized sport is 11. And many aren’t going on to some other physical activity to replace the discarded sport.

The number of kids who play multiple sports is in decline. So is youth sports in general: According to the Aspen Institute, nationwide the number of kids playing went from 45 percent in 2008 to 38 percent in 2018. In King County, the Institute found that youth are less active than the national average, with only 22 percent of boys and 16 percent of girls getting the CDC’s recommended one hour of physical activity each day. (In assessing Seattle and King County’s ability to get kids active, the report gave the region a grade of D.)

In itself, quitting isn’t an unhealthy thing for a child to do. It’s a normal part of the pre-teen and teen quest to establish an identity. The problem is that too often, quitting a sport means quitting physical activity altogether, says Julie McCleery, research associate at the University of Washington’s Center for Leadership in Athletics, and the principal investigator for the Aspen Institute’s “State of Play – Seattle-King County” report, which came out earlier this month.

When kids quit sports, too few of them look to other forms of exercise, McCleery said. “They’re not finding other ways to be physically fit.”

Travis Dorsch, the founding director of Utah State University’s Families in Sport lab, says that the number of kids leaving sports and not finding other activities has lead to a serious public-health issue.

“We have a sort of combustible situation for adolescents. It’s gone from sport to a public health concern. How are we are creating a generation or two now of youth that haven’t been brought up in an environment of sport,” he said.

What can parents do to keep kids active and keep sports fun?


Make physical activity part of family life.

Whether it’s walks, bike rides or tossing a frisbee in a park, it’s important to have physical activity be part of what your family does together.

“If the family is engaged in that, it’s hard for the kids to say no,” Dorsch said.


Encourage kids to try different sports.

Swimming, soccer, skateboarding, martial arts, skiing, parkour, mountain biking, crew, rock climbing, roller derby, tennis, basketball ... there are so many things out there to try. Keep in mind you don’t want to have too many structured activities going on. (McCleery said that for under-12s, there should be a 2-to-1 ratio of free play to structured play).

Trying a variety of sports will help kids develop different muscles and physical skills, all of which will make them stronger athletes long-term than if they focused on one sport.

Dorsch said it is very important that kids feel in control of the kinds of activities they do.

“Let the kids own the experience,” he said.


Be wary of letting your kids specialize.

If your child takes an intense interest in a sport, and shows some aptitude for it, you may think about having your kid try out for a more comprehensive training experience than your local league can offer. The past couple of decades have seen rapid growth in professional coaching and travel teams for young athletes.

But a variety of experts caution against specializing in a particular sport too early.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against specializing in a particular sport before age 15, because studies show that young athletes who specialize early have higher rates of overuse injuries than those who play multiple sports. Full schedules and constant training leave them more susceptible to depression, anxiety and burnout, and many of them quit.

The National Athletic Trainers’ Association recommends that kids should not play any sport for more than eight months of the year, or more than five days a week, and that the number of hours per week playing should be equal to the kids’ age.

If your child is so passionate about a sport that she wants more quality coaching and playing time than would be available in the standard recreational level, take a good, critical look before signing up with an elite team: How qualified is the coach? How many hours is your child committing to? What will she have to give up?

“Parents need to be good consumers of youth sports,” McCleery said.


Support local recreational leagues and inclusive school sports programs.

Volunteer-powered leagues, where kids of all abilities can play, are in decline nationwide, largely because of the rise of paid select sports.

Even in Seattle, which boasts a recreational soccer league where kids can and do play through high school, the numbers of teams goes down steeply after age 9, and the way teams die often follows this pattern: a group of kids will quit in favor of select soccer, and those who don’t go have to find a new team. Whether kids move on to a new recreational team after their old one collapsed often depends less on how much they love soccer than on how confident they are that their skills will make them welcome on a new team. If they don’t feel they’re good enough, they quit.

For many kids, local recreational leagues are the only leagues that make sense, because of their low cost and because they include everyone. When they are no longer available for kids, it creates a situation where a sport goes from being for everybody to being only for those who are good at it.

“We have a very narrow understanding of who is allowed to play some sports,” McCleery says.

How to support these leagues? Encourage your kids to participate, train to become a coach, or encourage your teenage children to train as coaches.

Public middle and high schools have some sports that welcome all comers, including track and field, cross-country, and swimming, and some team sports. If one of those teams has a fund-raiser, consider giving money.


Be a good example.

Give yourself some time to actively pursue sports you enjoy. It can be tough for a working parent to shorten time with the family in order to join a kickball league or go hiking in the mountains -- but do it.  You’re not just goofing around getting sweaty, said Dorsch.

“You are supporting the culture necessary to engage in sport opportunities.”

Related: Dad Next Door (Dr. Jeff Lee) on the joys and challenges of coaching kids' sports.


Fiona Cohen is a Seattle mother of two. When it comes to sports, she's been there. Read her survival guide to the Seattle Youth Soccer Association City Tournament, what she calls "Seattle's greatest test of parental fan resolve."


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