Youth Sport Participation: 
Dropout or Success

Youth sport participation offers many healthy benefits for children, but the dropout rate is extremely high. 

The benefits of youth sport participation are not automatic. In addition to potential injuries and eating disorders, psychologically children often feel excessive pressure to win, perceive themselves as having poor abilities, and feel vulnerable in the presence of teammates. Additionally, poor sportsmanship, bullying, and violence have become common in youth sport settings. 

These negative experiences may account for extremely high drop out rates during adolescence. About one third of all participants between 10 and 17 years of age withdraw from organized sport programs every year. 

This video produced by the Mayo Clinic has talks about why kids drop out and what parents and coaches can do about it.

Youth Sport Participation:
Predicting Dropout or Success 

What causes young athletes to drop out or continue as the age? Côté and colleagues created the Developmental Model of Sport Participation (DMSP) based on research in a variety of sports. This psychologically-oriented model suggests that children who start in organized sports eventually choose to participate in sports at a recreational level or an elite level, or they choose to drop out of sports completely.  The model emphasizes the intrinsic motivation needed for activities in the sampling phase and this helps young people find an activity to which they are suited.


Children pass through these three phases: 

1.  Sampling phase (6–12 years):

  • need to sample a wide range of activities
  • emphasis on fun and excitement
  • parents/carers are a key influence
  • dominated by ‘deliberate play’.

2.  Specializing phase (13–15 years):

  • focus on one or two sports
  • sport-specific skill development. 

3.  Investment phase (16+ years):

  • committed to achieving elite status in one sport
  • large amount of ‘deliberate practice’ time
  • family activities revolve around the young person’s sporting timetable.

The model emphasizes the importance of participating in a diversity of sports that focus on deliberate play activities during the “sampling years” (ages 6-12).

Deliberate play activities are defined as activities set up and monitored by age-adapted rules, such as a pick-up basketball game or stickball.  Children a naturally motivated to play and enjoy the activities.

As an athlete progresses to the the specialized and investment phases, this deliberate play is less frequent, but deliberate practice becomes more frequent as the athlete becomes more specialized and serious about their sport. In the investment phase, more time, money, and effort are required to reach higher levels of performance.

Quality early learning experiences through sampling and play during childhood develop perceptions of competence, which in turn lead to motivation for continued participation. Children’s perceptions of competence in late childhood (ages 8-12) are largely the result of comparisons with their peers.

It is only at about the age of 12 or 13 that children are able to fully understand the differing effects that effort, practice, and ability have on their performances. For example, before the age of 12 or 13, children tend to judge their athletic ability in comparison with their peers (i.e. I run faster/slower than Mary) rather than in absolute terms (i.e. I can run 100m in 15 seconds). 

If children are exposed to competition and advanced skill work too soon, they will experience a decreased sense of self-esteem and competence, and an increased sense of anxiety. Research on talent development indicates that those who do not persist in their talent area often experienced anxiety because their skill level was too low for the challenges offered to them.

What Coaches Can Do

The DMSP highlights the critical role that the coach can play in positively or negatively influencing youth sport participation and experiences. 

Research indicates that the best liked coaches are those who:

  • demonstrate more technical instructional,
  • are democratic,
  • reinforce positive behaviors,
  • create an atmosphere that athletes perceive as more fun, and
  • foster more team unity.

These skilled coaches have lower dropout rates than untrained coaches. 

In contrast, athletes who drop out and/or burn out perceive their coaches as less encouraging and supportive, and more controlling and autocratic than other athletes.

For more, check out this journal article on Youth Sports by Frazier-Thomas and Cote.

This Powerpoint Presentation by Jean Cote  highlights how to promote positive outcomes in youth sports.

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