Recreation and Sport Studies

Studying, Experiencing and Facilitating Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport through Wellness and Physical Activity

The Race to the Bottom: Youth Sport and the Increase of Competition for Younger Participants



Sports have been a staple of childhoods across North America for centuries. The organized and structured games that children play are effective activity for solving problems and improving quality of life for individuals and society alike (Coakley, 2011). This is based off the acceptance that sport is a perfect avenue for leaders to instill the values, social norms and desired ideologies of their culture. However, academics have debated the timing of the intervention of organized sports in childhood, particularly those that are based on competition, with many critics concluding that structured play is having a damaging effect on youth (Cote, Lidor, & Hackfort, 2009) (Gould, 2010).

The rise of organized and competitive youth sport has been well documented, especially in the United States. Various books and media have explored the topic, with a large consensus being that the current delivery practices are having a negative impact on participants. One major theme found in the literature surrounding organized competitive youth sport is the prevalence of early specialization. The age that parents and youth are entering the field of organized and competitive play is plummeting, as more pressure is being applied to “get ahead” in the race of sport excellence. This pressure is developing at two particular levels – amongst parents and sport providers.

When understanding the trend of early specialization, it is important to understand the sport system in which the context is set in. For the United States, Tom Farrey’s book, Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children, provides a short and simple explanation of the American youth sport system.

According to Farrey, the American’s poor showing at the 1988 Olympics led the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) to shift its focus on funding athletes (Farrey, 2008). The organization, which is responsible for coordinating and leading elite level sport in the country, began to strategically invest in competitors who were identified as having the potential to win medals, rather than the previous method of investing in all athletes who could meet an international standard for Olympic qualification (Farrey, 2008).

The USOC’s shift in policy caused a ripple that altered the entire sport system in the United States. Public money for grassroots development, the foundation of any strong sport system, was further reallocated for elite performers. This lead to many public sport associations, particularly school-based physical education programs, to cease operations, which lead non-public enterprises to quickly take over the amateur sports industry (Farrey, 2008). These organizations, such as Little League Baseball, Pop Warner Football, and YMCA, instituted pay-to-play models of business, which resulted in the exclusion of participants from low-income households (Friedman, 2013).

Following this shift in policy, youth sport in America has grown into a multi-million-dollar industry. These non-public organizations continue to push for a greater share of the industry, which has caused a fierce competition for participants. In a bid to increase their revenues, the directors of these organizations set their sights on hooking participants, and their cash flush parents, in earlier.

Non-public organizations have played on a theme that has roots in youth sport since it’s inception in the United States. Since the late 1800’s, scholars argued that sport, specifically those competitive in nature, was a device for moral development and social norms (Coakley, 2011) (Chandler & Goldberg, 1990). This was the foundation of school based sport, which was used to prepare students both physically and mentally for the industrial society that was emerging at the time (Friedman, 2013). This trend in sport continued until the 1960’s when a trend called the self-esteem movement began.

The movement marked a shift away from competition in public programing, as it was believed to be detrimental to youth development. Instead, a focus was placed on building confidence and pride in one’s own talent, while re-framing from comparing a child’s abilities to others (Friedman, 2013). This compelled parents, who possessed the financial resources, to pay-to-play providers such as Little League Baseball and Pop Warner Football to provide their kids with the foundation of values to succeed (Friedman, 2013). It was this belief that the pay-to-play organizations expanded upon and monetized.

Americans, like the vast majority of people, are willing to do anything for their children. Parents want to provide their children with a better life, and for them to enjoy everything they did in their youth. This means sports, and parents will do everything in their power to provide their child with the best chance at athletics. Sports in the United States favour early starters, and pay-to-play organizations are compelling parents into entering their kids in organized sports at younger ages.

By entering their toddler into the sport system, parents are led to believe that they are giving their kid a head start over their peers. This investment early in life will pay off for their children later in various forms. By gaining sport skills and competition experience early, some believe they are setting their kids up for success in adolescences sport when college scouts begin to appear (Farrey, 2008). In fact, some American families are spending upwards of $100,000 per-child on youth sports, more than a college education, which includes private coaching lessons, strength and conditioning sessions, physiotherapy, and travel in their pursuit of lucrative college scholarships (Farrey, 2008). Unfortunately, athletic scholarships rarely materialize, and kids who enter sport to soon have been linked to a number of physical, psychological, and social issues (Cote, Lidor, & Hackfort, 2009) (Gould, 2010).

While this discussion is grounded in an American context, similar examples can be found in the Canadian Sport System as well. One does not need to look farther than their local hockey rink, or soccer field to see kids under 12 years of age contending for a spot on a pay-to-play competitive travel team. However, is competition amongst youth entirely bad?

In Canada, there have been a number of policies developed around the idea of lifelong sport and recreation participation. The most common framework is the Canadian Sport for Life Long-term Athlete Development Model (LTAD). This outline, which has been adapted in numerous countries, defines standards for sport participation at all stages of an individual’s life-cycle. The LTAD, which is grounded in academic research, stresses the need for activity at a young age (Balyi, Way, & Higgs, 2013). However, it is clear that entering into a specific sport training to early is detrimental to the health development of any individual.

As previously mentioned, early specialization has been linked to a number of physical, psychological, and social issues, such as overuse injuries and burn-out. For this reason, the LTAD has made it clear that youth need to sample a number of different sporting activities to build a number of different skills before settling on a specific sport (Balyi, Way, & Higgs, 2013). And while each National Sport Organization in Canada has adapted the LTAD to meet their sport’s unique needs, it is common practice among the frameworks that youth need to be gradually introduced to competitive environments, rather than being dropped into them.

Despite the strives that many professionals have made, the utopian view of the LTAD is still far from being realized in our country. While the LTAD provides sport providers with a direction towards a “sport-for-all” approach, the Canadian Sport System is not far off from our American counterparts in some respects. Like the United States, youth sport in Canada is a lucrative market, and sport organizations, both public and private, are competing for their share of it. Securing participants early in will ensure a cash stream that could be acquired by another association if they are not quick. And similar to the climate of American youth sport, Canadians are trying to expose their children to competition with the hope of getting ahead and of their peers, and not falling behind them in the race for experience.

It is important to understand the factors that have lead to the early specialization among youth, and realize the risks associated with the phenomenon. While frameworks have been developed to curve the trend, it is clear that organizations who have a financial incentive to ensure the growth of participation will likely refuse to change their practice of early recruitment. It is therefore up to those with the decision making power to choose the path of sport participation. Those individuals include policy markers within government, but also parents who are providing the capital to the competitive pay-to-play programs that are turning children into athletes far too soon. Children need to be given the time to play and develop– there will be plenty of time for playbooks.


Balyi, I., Way, R., & Higgs, C. (2013). Long-term Athlete Development. Windsor, Ontario, Canada: Human Kinetics.

Chandler, T. J., & Goldberg, A. D. (1990). Building character through sports: Myth or possibility. Counseling & Values, 34(3), 169. Retrieved October 25, 2016

Coakley, J. (2011). Youth Sports: What Counts as “Positive Development?”. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 35(5), 306-324. Retrieved October 25, 2016

Cote, J., Lidor, R., & Hackfort, D. (2009). ISSP position stand: To sample or to specialize? Seven postulates about youth sport activities that lead to continued participation and elite performance. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 7(1), 7-17. Retrieved October 25, 2016

Farrey, T. (2008). Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children. New York: ESPN Books.

Friedman, H. L. (2013, September 20). When Did Competitive Sports Take Over American Childhood? The Atlantic.

Gould, D. (2010). Early Sport Specialization. Journal of Physical, 81(8), 33-37. Retrieved October 25, 2016


2 thoughts on “The Race to the Bottom: Youth Sport and the Increase of Competition for Younger Participants

  1. I agree with your general premise that even though there is evidence in the Canadian sport system of implementing measures to counteract the increased specialization in youth sports, the system as a whole is somewhat hypocritical. The LTAD is a step in the right direction, but programs such as “own the podium” and the general make-up of our youth sports systems suggest that we may not be ready to completely move away from the american model of youth sports. As more and more money becomes involved in sport at the highest level and perpetuates the trend of commercialization of sport, I believe we will continue to see a trickle-down effect in the form of increased specialization at youth levels.

    There is an inherent conflict of interest in encouraging a more participative model within the current structure that is moving away from school-run and public sports programs towards a pay-to-play model. As you touched on, until stakeholders and decision makers in sport put a framework in place that encourages participation at all levels and across all sports, organizations will continue to professionalize, which will encourage further specialization at increasingly young ages. In my experience and from what I have observed, your thoughts regarding the frameworks currently in place are on point. Our current system is set up to identify the most skilled athletes at a young age, and devote disproportionate amounts of resources, both in the form of money and coaching, to these athletes. Not only do systems like the one we currently have in place encourage specialization and proffesionalization of youth sports, but there is existing evidence that it may not necessarily be the most conducive to producing elite athletes. Our tunnel-vision on winning and producing elite athletes may actually be hindering our ability to win and produce elite athletes. As we continue to focus more on elite levels of sport, we may be putting up barriers in the form of money and exclusiveness that may be keeping talent out of the system.

    I believe we could learn from systems such as the Finnish and Swedish hockey systems, where a bottom-up approach is used to encourage participation and develop skills. Resources are more focused on the recreational and youth levels, with the best coaches not only coaching the elite teams, but spread out throughout the lowest levels as well. The focus is on providing access to all young hockey players to elite level coaching, fostering skills growth at both the recreational and competitive levels. The focus is not on “systems” or winning hockey games, but rather developing the individual players and removing all barriers to participation. Hockey is noticeably cheaper in scandavian countries, as the government has stepped up and invested considerable money to remove this barrier. The results speak for themselves. Despite the fact that based on population and resources, Finland has no business competing with hockey powers like Canada and the US, Finland has medaled at all 3 of the most recent Olympics, and is coming off back to back World Junior Championship Gold Medals. At this past June’s NHL Entry Draft, 3 of the first 5 picks were Finns, an incredible feat for a country of 5 million walking amongst giants. I encourage you to read this article on the Finnish hockey system:( It may offer insight into possible solutions or upgrades that could be made to our current sport system structure. One quote that stood out to me was “if a player is sitting on the bench, he is not developing.” Simple enough, but it illustrates quite clearly what is working in Finland and what isn’t working in Canada.


  2. Thanks for taking the time to read the article and sharing the piece on the Finnish Hockey System.
    There have been a number of reforms amongst NSOs across the globe to change their culture, and it is refreshing to see that the FIHA was able to employ a collaborative approach to better their young athletes.

    Referring to Green’s Model (2005) for development, participation amongst youth and retaining athletes is critical to a sport system’s longevity. The strategies that the FIHA have employed, such as the hiring of a shared fulltime coach focused on skill development, are precisely the type of policy shifts the North American Sport System needs to implement in order to stay relevant in the elite athlete movement.

    Another point that resonated with me was the quote “”If a young player is sitting on the bench, he is not developing…” The body of knowledge on youth development points to the importance of quality participation. In soccer a standard of contact, or “touches”, with the ball has emerged for players to achieve. This standard not only promotes play, but also the idea that athletes need to be put in positions to gain the touches. For this reason, some leagues have changed to a variation of soccer that requires fewer players and different rules to promote creativity.

    While these changes are great, it does little to address the problem of competition amongst our system, and promotion of early specialization. The only view to combat this would be the implementation of collaborative multi-sport approaches, such as partnerships between NSOs for camps and season schedules, but in the current climate I don’t for see this becoming a reality in the near future.


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