“If we restart youth sports from zero and rebuild it based on children’s physical and emotional needs,” Mark O’Sullivan, a researcher, soccer coach, and youth development expert asked, “would it look like it does today? Hands up for no.”

O’Sullivan asked this question to a large audience of parents to the children of Wasatch Soccer Club and MetaSport FC, two highly competitive soccer clubs based in Utah. These parents pay hundreds of dollars for registration, plus uniform fees, referee fees, state league fees, and more, all in the hope that their kids are getting the best development possible. The most competitive of parents spend thousands of dollars on private training and dedicate hundreds of hours to their children’s athletics. And yet, when O’Sullivan asked this question, every single hand rose to the sky as murmurs of the word “no” spread throughout the crowd. 

Ultimately, American youth sports are on a steep decline as the “pay to play” ideology becomes increasingly intertwined with the youth sports culture. From 2011 to 2017, according to the Aspen Institute, the number of kids aged 6-12 who regularly participate in team sports dropped from 41.5% to 37%. Furthermore, the institute noted that the percentage of kids who participate in high-calorie-burning sports has declined from ​​28.7% to 23.9%. As sports participation levels decrease at the youth level, high school sports participation in 2018-2019 saw its first decline as well since 1989. While youth sports were once dominated by pickup basketball and recreational baseball, today’s youth landscape is increasingly focused on exclusivity, specialization, and professionalization. Almost impossibly, the youth sports industry has grown to an unfathomable $17 billion, bigger than Major League Baseball and the National Football League. 

This pay-to-play aspect of youth sports is creating inequalities throughout the sport as wealthy families shell out thousands of dollars on one-on-one training from pro athletes, weeklong camps, and leagues made up of super teams. On the other hand, low-income families are finding it harder and harder to financially support their children to play. According to the Aspen Institute, just 34% of kids from families earning less than $25,000 a year played a team sport at least one day in 2017, compared to 41.9% in 2011. But among families that earn over $100,000 a year, participation has risen from 66.4% to 69%.

With all these financial barriers being constructed, youth across the country are missing out on many of the benefits that youth sports offer. One of the things young athletes enjoy most about youth sports is the relationships they build. After playing together year after year, traveling together, and growing up together, youth sports serve as a means of allowing so many children across the country to meet their best friends. Additionally, youth sports allow for children to develop a strong work ethic and healthy competitive drive. 

Recently, the Changing the Game Project has announced its goal of “returning youth sports to our children.” They are attempting to have the 10,000-hour rule become the bedrock philosophy of youth sports, encouraging athletes to train for 10,000+ hours in order to become a top player. This rule motivates parents to force their children into specializing in one sport rather than getting a taste for all of them. While specializing in a single sport can be seen as a child’s healthy aspirations to succeed, “extrinsic influences” were common in these situations. 

Due to the extreme amounts of money in the youth sports industry, parents need to be aware of questionable operations and programs. Reputable programs are in must-win positions at all times and if they lose, they risk losing money as well as some of their most talented players. In too many of these programs, winning is a higher priority than player development, demonstrating a flaw within the youth sports system. Additionally, these programs are incredibly volatile as they are always at risk of losing their most talented players to other, more successful programs. This can lead to what is known as the “cascade effect” were supporting players follow the most talented players in an attempt to develop amongst the nation’s best youth and win more tournaments.

Arguably the most toxic component to modern-day youth sports would be the cutthroat nature of their search for prestige, bragging rights, and success on the future level. Hundreds of thousands of athletes alongside their increasingly competitive and involved parents, vying to be the 2% of high school athletes that receive a college scholarship. This cultivates a system in which coaches are forced to tell a kid when they aren’t good enough or that they don’t have a viable future in the sport. While youth sports used to be a casual way for children to exercise and have fun, it has now become a system that applies immense pressure in order to breed athletes who have that slight potential for stardom at the collegiate or professional level. 

On the other end of the spectrum, new national recreational leagues have developed to offer varying forms of youth sports. Leagues like i9 Sports offer for-fun games until athletes reach high school in order to promote a reduced pressure athletic experience. Additionally, these leagues offer the less talented players a chance to get a starting role versus playing limited minutes in some of the highly competitive leagues. 

While youth sports will continue to evolve, it is important to ensure that your child is in the right league setting for their own mindset and development. The pressure and stress caused by these competitive leagues can be detrimental to certain youth, inciting O’Sullivan to make the claim that the common model of youth sports is “linear.” While it may work for some, it doesn’t work for all of the nation’s youth. His point could be likened to someone throwing a bag of eggs at a brick wall. If one of them doesn’t break, we’d hold it up and proclaim, “Look! The system works!” However, Sullivan deems it necessary to develop a new system of youth sports that is encouraging to all participants and fosters a more inclusive and supportive environment for families of all socioeconomic statuses and backgrounds.