What's wrong with youth soccer

It’s no secret that youth sports has been struggling with declining rates of participation along with growing rates of abandonment by those who do play. But even by these sobering standards, what’s happening to youth soccer is especially shocking, with hundreds of thousands of kids abandoning the sport and no signs of that exodus slowing.

According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, “25.2% of youth who used to play soccer left the game” in 2017. Furthermore, only 14.8% of kids ages 6-12 gave soccer a try in 2017, down from 17% just two years earlier. In a nation of roughly 50 million children in that age group, even a decline of a single percentage point equals A LOT of kids.

Or as Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society program pointed out, youth soccer has “lost more child participants than any other sport — about 600,000 of them.” That’s enough people, he added, “to fill every stadium on any given match day during the 2026 World Cup.”

What’s going on? Why is youth soccer hemorrhaging players at such a high rate? And perhaps just as important, is the precipitous decline in soccer serving as something of a canary in the coal mine warning to other youth sports?

The Decline and Fall of Youth Soccer

The decline in youth soccer can be seen everywhere – from recreational leagues to travel programs, from nationally-recognized squads to programs specifically targeting Latino and immigrant populations more likely to love the sport.

Why the huge drop in youth soccer participation? Some of the answers are familiar (or should be) by now. The top reason is the same  plaguing just about all youth sports: the kids aren’t having any fun. These are games, after all.

Coaches with appropriate training are still in short supply, leading to associated problems that drive kids away from the sport.

Ok, so why aren’t the kids having fun? Again, the usual suspects: lack of playing time, an inability to play with friends, poor coaching, hyper-competitiveness. In other words, adults are mucking up everything and the kids, not surprisingly, want out.

A case in point: perhaps because it was panicked by the continuing struggles of U.S. men’s soccer at the national level, two years ago the U.S. Soccer Federation, in a bid to develop better long-term prospects, made a rule change that percolated all the way down to individual community programs.

The change? Teams were to stop forming based on school age and instead to focus on calendar age.

The result? A large number of kids were no longer able to play with friends. In countless instances, kids who had played together for years saw their squads broken apart. A year later, soccer witnessed by far the highest churn rate of any youth sport. In short, adults at the highest echelons of the sport made a decision with little to no regard for the millions of kids their decision would impact.

And that same blindness/ignorance in the adult world is behind other challenges facing youth soccer as well.

Rising Costs

Hope Solo, the star-goalie of the U.S. Women’s championship squad, made waves last year when she admitted that she’d never have been able to play youth soccer in her day had today’s fee structures been in place. “My family would not have been able to afford to put me in soccer if I was a young kid today,” Solo told an audience at the Hashtag Sports conference in New York.

Decline of youth soccer
Youth soccer is being hurt in large part by adults, including those at the highest echelons of U.S. soccer who are making short-sighted decisions that drive kids from the sport

According to the Aspen Institute, at least 35% of the kids playing youth soccer today hail from homes earning at least $100k per year; that figure drops to 11% in households earning just $25k or less. In other words, a lot of kids are being shut out of soccer. Which is astounding given that soccer is the world’s most popular sport in large part because it is the perfect pick-up sport: all it requires is a handful of kids, some open ground, and a ball.

Ironically, two sports that are largely defying the decline in youth sports have no pick-up culture: lacrosse and rugby. Why are they growing? Because of increased interest from wealthier families.

Specialization/Burnout

A growing number of kids are being pushed to specialize in one sport, particularly by parents, coaches, and trainers who see ‘promise’ in kids as young as elementary age. The result: kids are burning out on sports at epidemic rates.

And why wouldn’t they? A child’s mind is naturally interested in different experiences. Kicking, throwing, racing, rowing, swimming – all of these activities are fascinating to young minds hungry for novel experiences.

But no sooner does a child show a proclivity for a particular activity – maybe he can throw a ball much farther than his counterparts, or she can swim the length of the pool in record time – then an adult sees glory in his/her/their future.

Girls soccer
It’s critical that parents remind their children of how and why soccer can be fun, even if that means abandoning leagues and returning to the days of pickup games.

There are all kinds of problems with specializing in one sport. For starters, the repetitive motions can lead to significant problems in a child’s health. The orthopedic surgeons who perform ‘Tommy John’ reconstructive surgery, report say they perform more of these on kids than the pros.

There’s also quite a lot of evidence that all that specialization will not help – and may even retard – the child’s development in that sport. “Children who specialize in one sport early in life were found to be the first to quit their sport and ended up having higher inactivity rates as an adult,” says Dr. Charles A. Popkin, pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Columbia University Medical Center.

Time to Rediscover the Beautiful Game

So what to do if a child isn’t interested in trying soccer or, just as important, wants to bail out on the sport? How can a family get or keep their kids involved in soccer without being scared off by incompetent coaches, the decision making of short-sighted league officials, or the growing cost of pay-to-play programs?

Our research suggests there are five key steps parents can take:

1. Get Involved. This is the most important step, because far too often busy parents surrender their authority to youth leagues, often at the expense of what is best for their children. What does ‘get involved’ mean?

  • Volunteer to serve as a coach or assistant coach and make your voice heard.
  • Make an appearance at your local soccer league’s Board or community meetings and, again, make your voice heard.
  • Get to know your child’s coach and advise him/her what you expect.

2. Promote Pick-up Soccer. This seems antithetical to the whole notion of pick-up ball of any kind, since kids themselves are supposed to spontaneously make this happen. But remember that the art of pick-up sports has largely been lost – a bit like manually changing the channel on a TV – and as such parents can band together to get their kids to meet up at a local field to play. Then, parents, disappear!

3. Use Scholarships. If money is tight, check into the local league’s discounted registration opportunities, often available via ‘scholarship’ programs. Many if not most leagues have them and parents often are unaware.

4. Educate Yourself. Ask most parents why they work as hard as they do, make personal sacrifices, and so on, you’ll get the answer: for the kids. Yet when it comes to educating themselves, far too often parents play dumb, acting like crazy people on the sidelines, pushing their kids to specialize in one sport, and otherwise perpetrating the very behaviors that drive kids away from sports.

It is called ‘the beautiful game’ for a reason: soccer or futbol is a fantastic way for kids to get loads of exercise at a time when our nation is struggling with an epidemic in childhood obesity; it affords kids the endless benefits associated with team sports; and it introduces kids to the world’s most popular sport (soccer may be in decline in the U.S., but it’s popularity endures around the world).

So let’s do our part to save the beautiful game and reintroduce the idea that soccer can be fun for kids.

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