5 reasons tweens and teens drop out of sports—and what to do about it

Every kid is different. It’s a lesson you learn right from the get-go as a parent or teacher.  

Some like apples, some hate broccoli. Some like to dig for worms, and some wouldn’t dream of getting their hands dirty. 

And some, while super-active as younger children, need a bit more encouragement to keep active in their tween and teen years. 

Data from Statistics Canada reveals that almost 70 percent of kids over the age of 12 don’t meet the minimum recommended healthy movement guidelines, and girls are half as likely as boys to remain active into their teen years. 

But why are so many kids dropping out of sport and physically active pursuits early in their teenage years? Here are five common reasons, and some suggestions on what you can to do about it. 

1) Burnout

The most effective way to prevent burnout is to introduce your kids to a variety of physical activities from a young age, not just sports, and let them choose which activities and sports they’d like to do at different times of the year. Maybe they could ski in the winter, run in the spring, play baseball in the summer, and tennis in the fall.

When a child focuses on one activity or sport too early, they may grow bored and even physically exhausted. It’s well-known that single-sport athletes are at risk of getting injured from using the same set of muscles over and over. Burnout and injury can be avoided if coaches and activity leaders follow the LTAD guidelines for the sport in question.

The best thing for a burned-out tween or teen is to scale back to create a more manageable schedule, and focus on having enjoyable sport experiences. Let them know that they have the option of playing a whole different sport as well.

Talk to your teens about what activities they would like to do and about the importance of keeping up (or restarting) their active lifestyle.

Expose them to various sports and activities. Perhaps they’ve played soccer and hockey all their lives and don’t even know about water polo or skateboarding.

2) Social life

Tweens and teens can’t wait to spend time with their friends at sleepovers, “chilling” in someone’s backyard, or hanging out at the mall, checking out each other’s clothes and people-watching. Practices, away tournaments, and games don’t always fit into this new social lifestyle, and many teens feel that they have to choose one over the other. Often, it’s the social life that teens prioritize.

Before kids hit their tween years, it’s important that they understand the importance of a schedule that balances school, homework, family time, friend time, and physical activity. 

Speak with your kids about the fun they’re having with the kids on their team. Do they have some goofing-off rituals in the dressing room? Do they have a cheer they chant before or after a game?

Connect with their friends’ parents and see if you can work together to involve your kids in the same sport or activity. Even if they’re not playing on the same team, they can use their playtime to practice together.

Remind your kids about friends that they’ve made over the years through sports. Who doesn’t have time for more friends?

When kids are at your home with their friends, you can also provide equipment they can use, such as an outdoor basketball hoop, a homemade skateboard ramp, or a net. Equipment can also be available for taking to the local playground to use with their friends, like tennis balls and rackets, a soccer ball, etc.

3) Puberty concerns

This is the age of acne, zits, body odour, sweat, and growing pains. Not to mention the raging hormones, making tweens and teens feeling like their moods can swing at a moment’s notice.

With growth spurts coming at different times during these years, some kids feel like they’re being left behind. Some may worry they are not able to keep up, or may feel awkward if they’re shorter or taller than their peers. 

Dramatic growth spurts can also change the way kids perform in their sports. The basketball player who dominated the court is now challenged by other kids catching up in speed and size. The gymnast who could balance, turn, and jump with ease on a balance beam suddenly has balance issues.

For girls, getting their periods and developing breasts can cause discomfort, embarrassment, and may lead them to withdraw from sport participation.

It’s not surprising that many kids step away from sports due to a change in confidence levels and body image. It’s important to speak with your kids before puberty hits so that they’re not terror-stricken and completely unaware of what’s coming.

Discuss the fact that changes will be happening to their bodies and what those changes will be. Emphasize the fact that all of their friends will be going through similar changes, but that everyone will experience them at different times and in different ways.

Let your kids know that you will always have an open-door policy when it comes to any questions that they might have. Pre-plan for how they can anticipate how changes might impact their participation in sports.

If you haven’t had a chance to chat with your teen about the impact that puberty can have on their sports participation, it’s not too late!

For girls, puberty means dealing with, among other things, breast development and periods. Giving them the opportunity to choose their own athletic clothing, including sports bras, will instill a lot more confidence in your girls. A discussion regarding pads versus tampons, and reassuring them that girls can still participate in sports during their period, will also lessen the stress.

It’s also important to remind your kids that while some friends may have grown far taller, or developed more speed, their growth should be coming soon. Hang in there!

4) Co-ed activities

Some girls find it discouraging to be involved in activities with boys due to factors like being sweaty or finding boys to be more competitive. 

And many boys find it just as embarrassing to be sweaty and awkward in front of girls.

Speak with your child’s school to ask if they can provide single-gender classes and more single-gender teams. Many communities also offer girls-only gyms or girls-only classes. Seek out all options.

And for both boys and girls, encourage them to pack deodorant or antiperspirant in their school bag. It’s a simple solution to a whole lot of sweat and body odour issues, and a way to counter their possible feelings of embarrassment.

5) Pressure 

When my daughter was nine, her house-league soccer coach told her that if she and some of her teammates were better players, they might get more playing time. Needless to say, this was completely out of harmony with the developmental guidelines for soccer in her age group, and it was a crushing blow to her confidence.

I’ve witnessed parents chastising their kids for not scoring enough in games, for not making a team, or for not having their “best” game. I’ve also witnessed kids whose parents have insisted that they play rep-level, not just in one sport, but often in two or three. 

When coaches and parents are focussed on the big leagues—the city championships, the trophies, and college acceptances in their chosen sport—the pressure of such lofty goals on kids is often overwhelming.

Kids also put pressure on themselves. Some kids are just naturally anxious and competitive.

How do we prevent this stress before it turns kids away from sports?

  • Look for coaches who give playing time to all, and emphasize fun as well as skills
  • Let your kids know that they won’t always win, but you’ll always be proud of them
  • Talk about the fun things that happened during practices and warmups as well as games
  • Celebrate small victories. Maybe your child didn’t score the winning run in a game. But maybe they did slide into second base for the first time

Praise their effort instead of the result of the game. Resist the urge to keep tabs on your child’s statistics! Hug your kids whether they win or lose and let them know how much you love watching them play.

The tween and teen years are difficult to navigate. By giving kids guidance and freedom to make some of their own decisions, it is possible to bring those who have left sports back to the active lifestyle they once had.

If you happen to have younger kids and are wondering what you can do now to prevent them from dropping out of sports before they reach the tween and teen years, the answer is: there’s a lot you can do! From exploring multiple sports to ensuring your kids are having fun and feel good about what they’re doing, the articles below can help you out.


Further reading:

How playing multiple sports is good for kids

How to help your daughter develop a love of being physically active

Specializing in sport can be harmful to young athletes

The one simple secret to help your child become more confident

Relative age and developmental age: Is your child getting shortchanged?

Parents gone wild: 4 things you can do to deal with overreacting parents

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