Why kids keep playing sports -- and inaccurate gender-based stereotypes

What makes kids drop out of sports, and equally importantly, what can we do to keep kids playing? It’s been commonly believed that boys play for the “competitive” aspects of team sports and girls play for the "social" aspects of sports. However, a recently published study of young soccer players shows that there are many similarities motivating kids to play sports: both girls and boys place a heavy emphasis on "fun."

There are many positive aspects of team sports for young people, but it seems we have a hard time keeping kids in the game past adolescence. Organized sports are one way to keep kids engaged in physical activity, and if we can keep them involved it should promote healthy activity for life. But it’s estimated that many kids stop playing organized sports at around age 11.

Several surveys and epidemiological studies have attempted to figure out the reasons why kids stop playing sports. Some common themes emerge:

At some point, coaches start thinking more about competitiveness over inclusiveness.
The number of hours required to practice and play increase as they get older, sometimes leading to monotony.
Single-sport specialization if done too early in life can lead to burnout and increased injury risk.

Let’s also understand that some kids are highly motivated by competition, and that focused practice is necessary to achieve mastery in many endeavors. So for some kids, the first two bullet points above would be viewed as positives.

But it seems that a large group of kids are influenced negatively by those themes, often driving them to stop sports altogether. Which brings us back to the recently published study titled “Toward Understanding Youth Athletes’ Fun Priorities”.

In this study of young soccer players, the authors noted considerable similarities in the responses from girls and boys, and consistency across a variety of age groups. The kids participating in the study noted the following as positive motivators to continue team participation:

“Trying your best.”
“Working hard.”
“Staying active.”
“Playing well together as a team.”

Those subjective responses will mean different things to different kids, but the key takeaway is that for girls and boys in several age groups, taking steps to ensure as much as possible a “fun” environment should be a motivator to keep playing. It seems that girls and boys respond well to similar things and that the old gender-based stereotypes may be off the mark.

Coaches and parents may be missing the point if they push a winning season or mistakenly reinforce perceived gender differences. My feeling is that creating situations that combine enjoyment, skill-building, and competition will have the best chance of leading to healthy movement for life.

Key Points:
A recently published study questions the common gender stereotypes, that girls play sports for “social” reasons and boys play for “competitive” reasons.
Girls and boys both cite “fun” as a key motivator to continue playing.
Strategies to encourage long term sports participation should include enjoyable elements in addition to skill building and competition.

(Dr. Dev K. Mishra, a Clinical Assistant Professor of orthopedic surgery at Stanford University, is the creator of the online injury management course and the Good to Go injury assessment App for coaches, managers, parents and players. Mishra writes about injury recognition and management at blog, where this article originally appeared.)

2 comments about "Why kids keep playing sports -- and inaccurate gender-based stereotypes".
  1. uffe gustafsson, February 14, 2020 at 5:29 p.m.

    You don’t have to be a genius to understand that fun is the most important factor.
    coaching is a second big factor.
    and I can speak of that my daughter played competitive soccer since 4 grade, she had great coaches that always made sure it was a positive environment but later she had coaches that was opposite of that, purely winning and that was not a positive environment to improve and learn.
    especially it created an environment of bad chemistry on the team, as in some was favorites for the coaches and the rest felt they where not good enough.
    And that actually made the parents questioning what was going on. So it made some players want to leave the club and joined another club.
    good coaches are vital for a team to be a place for young players to enjoy the game.
    tornaments are another issue, those same coaches that winning at all cost also seem to like tornaments so they have bragging rights, but to drive 9 hours for a weekend with 4 games seems kind of stupid.
    besides the cost and the wear on players are not the best options. Girls soccer is getting less of fun but more of bragging rights of coaches and parents.
    yes tornaments can be a fun thing to do but it need to be a local tornament.
    my two cents.

  2. Ron Frechette, February 17, 2020 at 7:53 a.m.

    I beleive that both genders have strong social needs when they get together to play in any youth sports program. I have found that the differences between the genders is that the girls will steal time from the practice session if you don't allow them to be social at the start. Boys will do their social activies via different behavior (wrestling, being physical and then with bragging). Both will take the time from the session but in different phases and at different times.

    As a coach you need to allow for the players to have their time to be social - just put it into the lesson plan!
    To the players part of the "Fun" is allowing them to be with their friends (mates in british terms). As an older person this was accomplished in my non-supervised free playing time with friends in the neighborhood! Something that is not happening any longer and as coaches we need to incorporate this into our lesson plans. 

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