The Critical Age for Youth Sports

By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck

You can find the statistics anywhere and we’ve all read the facts: Around the age of 13, children discontinue youth sports participation at a precipitous level. The reason for this phenomenon is the subject of many theories. But are there ways we, as parents and coaches, can keep kids playing into their teens?

Much has been written about this drop-off being attributed to overzealous, overly-competitive coaches. The thought process is that these coaches burn kids out, causing them to quit in frustration. But why such a huge spike at that particular age? Why not a couple years younger? Or a few years older?

I believe part of the reason for this age being so frequently the line of demarcation can be explained in this graph:

When children just begin youth sports, they play solely for fun. No scores are kept. Mistakes are not criticized. As they get older, games get more competitive. Scores are recorded. Physical and mental errors are corrected. This is when we start to run into issues.

This is not to say that this process is wrong. It is, of course, natural for winning to take on more priority the older kids get. And playing to win is not a bad thing in the proper context. And it also doesn’t mean that playing to win can’t be fun. On this graph the word “winning” could be changed to “intensity” or “seriousness”.  And different kids are wired differently. Some are imbued with a competitive spirit and they embrace the aspect of trying to win. Competition is not daunting to them. Others are not that way and just play because they enjoy being with teammates, running around, etc. Nothing wrong with either of these personality types.

This is one of the reasons rec sports are so important. But that can be a chicken and an egg scenario. Are there fewer kids playing into their teens because there are fewer rec sports opportunities, or are there few rec sports opportunities because fewer kids are playing?  In my community, there just simply is no rec baseball or softball after the age of 14 that I know of. I am of the opinion though, if someone made it their mission to provide an avenue and support a league for that age, kids would sign up to have fun.

We also have to understand that puberty plays a role. As children mature, their priorities and focus change. So do their bodies and their hormones. They may no longer be as attracted to being on a team with kids their own gender as they are interested in the opposite sex. They may have graduated from grade school and into middle school and begun associating with a new group of friends who are really, “friendly enemies.” These are people who profess to be their friends but who make fun of kids who play sports mainly because they don’t like sports.

Kids at this age become much more self-conscious. Unless they are standout athletes, they might start to worry that competing will look silly or awkward. And, if they have to try out for the first time, the thought of getting cut could terrify them. So, instead, they choose they choose the safe route of non-participation.

All of these are perfectly legitimate reasons, at least in the child’s mind, to quit playing. So if we, as parents and coaches would like them to continue through their teen years. What can we do?

From an early age, talk long-term about sports, as if playing all the way through high school is expected or admired. If you played sports well into your teens, make it clear you are proud of that.  If you didn’t, talk about how much you missed, how much you wish you had. This is a perfect opportunity to try to teach kids to worry less about what others think and to do what they know to be best.

Be sure they know you don’t care if they make a high school team or not. Explain that rec sports, or individual sports played for fun are great options. And there are sports and activities that are not as mainstream that anyone can play. When my wife worked in a high school athletic department she said that college crew teams, for example, were so desperate for participants that they would solicit the school and essentially offer scholarships to anyone with an athletic background, even if they had never rowed.

And, as I’ve said before, getting involved with your kids and their sports is probably your best bet. Play with them whenever you can. Attend their games and praise them not for their accomplishments, but for their effort. Let them know how much you enjoy watching them play.

The key is anticipating that “Critical Zone” ahead and trying to prepare for it. Because if your child comes home from middle school and has made up his/her mind that they’re not going to play anymore, it may very well be too late to overcome.

Brian Gotta is a former professional youth baseball coach and current volunteer Little League coach and board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels which can be found at He can be reached at

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