Youth Sports

Youth is defined for the purposes of this discussion as youngsters between 6 and 18 years. Sport means all sport activities practiced outside the physical education curriculum. Consequently, school sport as extracurricular activity is also included.

With the start of the Sport for All movement in the 1960s and 1970s, this period can be characterized as the years of growth for sport. Youth sport at that time was mainly an activity for adolescents and pre adolescents that took place in sports clubs or during extracurricular training at school. Now the age to begin participating in youth sport has decreased to 7 years or even younger. This policy of attracting younger children to become involved in organized sport is based not on pedagogical objectives but on those related to ‘‘survival.’’ Sports clubs want to remain in the market because their economic existence is threatened.

Sport has become a very popular leisure time activity among youth. In most countries, at least 50 percent of all children in their early teens are active in various sports. Most of these activities take place in a sports club or during extracurricular training at school. More boys than girls are active in sports. Sports segregate the sexes as few other phenomena do. Boys and girls seldom take part in sports together.

Some of the most common youth sports globally are soccer among boys and swimming among both boys and girls. Among activities outside a sports club, jogging, cycling, and walking are the most popular. The most common sports are almost always universal. There are hardly any popular sports in a country that are played in that specific country alone. Sport has thus become international, not least with the help of television, with rules for performance that are understood by almost all individuals regardless of nationality and language.

The most common motives for taking part in sports are characterized by intrinsic values such as enjoyment and social aspects. These motives are more common than success in competition and better performance. Middle class children are overrepresented in organized youth sport. Membership of sports clubs is strongly related to gender, social class, and family situation.

Since the 1970s there have been important changes in sport and ideas about childhood and psychosocial development. The general value systems and norms in many societies have undergone significant transformations, and traditions and traditional social networks in local districts have been weakened. The way families have been individualized has led to less rigid authority structures, and a number of commercial and educational ‘‘adjustments’’ have taken place. Because of these changes, young people are more directed toward creating their own identities. Also, greater emphasis is placed on the role of institutions involved in leisure time activities, to offer coherent experiences and guidance for the formation of identity among young people. Schultz Jorgensen and colleagues (1986) suggested that the time of youth has become a waiting period for the formation of a psychosocial identity. Sport plays a major role in this formation of identity.

The following trends in youth sport are noticeable.

  1. The number of opportunities for youth sport participation have increased substantially since the early 1990s, and youth sports have become more specialized and differentiated at the same time as performance demands have increased.
  2. Sport has become institutionalized. Traditional sports, such as team sports, are not played spontaneously to the same extent as before. In some countries spontaneous, informally organized sports have almost disappeared. Children’s knowledge about and performance in sport have been more differentiated, and the extent and intensity of physical activity have become more varied. Two extreme groups of children can be identified today. In one group, children train intensively several times a week, some every day. In the other group, children are not physically active at all during their leisure time. As a result, physical capacity and sports skills vary considerably between children.
  3. During recent decades more children have entered organized sport. Differences between boys and girls as regards both extent and trends have decreased, mainly because girls’ sports habits have come to resemble those of boys. This trend is most common in Nordic countries, although it also exists in countries where there are increased opportunities for girls to participate in organized sports programs.
  4. While the flow to organized sport seemed to have stopped and even diminished in many countries, activities in commercial training centers where there is an emphasis on systematic training and skill development have increased. What is significant about these centers is that, although possibilities for making social contacts exist, there are no far reaching obligations. Youngsters can come and go as they please and are not dependent on parents’ engagement.
  5. There has been a professionalization of sports delivery, including a need for quality assessment and control in organized sports programs.
  6. There is an increased adaptation of rules, equipment, and competitive forms to children’s developmental stages and physical abilities.
  7. Sports organizations have started to develop schemes to specifically attract young people to their sports.
  8. There are an increasing number of initiatives in which organized sports are provided for youth at risk.

Problems in youth sports have received a great deal of attention in research. A dropout problem among teenagers, especially among girls, is reported in many countries. During adolescence there is a decrease in the number of participants. Interest in organized sports seems to have reached a breakpoint in many countries and is now even declining.

Youth sports have been shaped to a large extent by adult sports, and adult norms and values predominate. For example, rules for team sports are similar for adults and young children. In addition, youth sport often contains only specialized activities with sport specific training.

Youth sport has become more serious and less playful. Children are not allowed to play to the same extent as before. This problem increases with the decreasing age of participants. Youth sports have become heavily organized. Different sports compete for children’s interest, resulting in a focus on increasingly younger children becoming members of sports clubs.

Youth sport participation is far from democratized as involvement is related to children’s age and gender as well as their parents’ socioeconomic status. Many children are dependent on their parents for financial and logistical support, for example transportation. Often, a certain economic standard is a prerequisite for participation.

Ethical questions in youth sport have been raised in many countries. In order for sport to serve educational purposes for youth, the following principles have been formulated: (1) rules and regulations should be followed; (2) respect should be shown to other players and officials; (3) participants should demand the same from themselves as from others; and (4) participants should display a sense of justice and be loyal and generous.

Western competitive sports have developed in the direction of a greater emphasis on the importance of winning. This development can also be noticed in youth sport and can be regarded as a threat for the child orientation of sport. It is also reported from several countries that qualified youth sports leaders are hard to find. There is a heavy dependency on volunteers, which creates a high turnover and inconsistent quality of leadership and coaching.

Other problems also exist. For example, there is a need for effective cooperation between sports clubs, schools, and municipalities. The most successful programs have been those in which different actors have worked in partnership to make better provision of sporting opportunities for young people. Furthermore, the number of sports injuries among children and adolescents has been increasing in all nations where medical data are available.

In light of these problems, several policy recommendations have been made for youth sports programs. Some of these are listed below.

  • One of the main objectives of a future policy for youth sport should be to increase quality from a pedagogical point of view. Such a policy needs to focus on the following topics: developing a cooperative approach to the provision of youth sport instead of ‘‘competition’’ between the different organizations; ensuring youth sports coaches have appropriate pedagogical qualifications; setting up specific youth sports coaching programs; persuading parents that informal play during childhood is more important than formal sports participation; promoting sport for youth with an emphasis on enjoyment and its social aspects; and scientifically evaluating the effectiveness of sports promotional campaigns.
  • Sports among children must be made more accessible and should be offered close to residential areas. There should be greater possibilities for all children to try different sports, and better conditions should be created for varied physical activities.
  • The intrinsic values of youth sports (play and learning) must have priority at all times.
  • Training must be individualized and rich in variations. Firmly controlled and formalized training can be counterproductive. Sports clubs should aim to develop talent in the best way possible instead of trying to find new talent. Selection and specialization of individuals should not be made before they have reached their teens. Distinct variations in the maturing process among youth make any early prognoses of success in later years very uncertain.
  • A child’s relation to sports and to her own body as well as the experience of her own physical ability are the result of learning motor skills. But sport is also a question of learning norms and values related to behavior and lifestyle. Children are socialized into sports and thus also into the value system of sports. Youth sport is one of the most important environments for socialization. Sports must therefore also be valued as such and given due significance in children’s lives and development. Sport is perhaps the most important norm setter, second only to family and school. On the strength of its range and importance, sport must mediate and recreate essential values for the continued existence of a particular culture. In other words, it has a reproducing function. Therefore, it is vital that sport follow a sound ethical code. Also, in youth sport, leaders’ personal characteristics and behavior are highly important.
  • One of the greatest challenges facing youth sport is the development of a cooperative and coordinated approach by schools and clubs with the aim of offering sports as an educational environment for all children that enables them to develop at their own speed and according to their own interests.
  • Quality improvement or quality control will need to become essential elements of sports policy with a focus on encouraging quality awareness, developing quality standards, measuring instruments and remedial techniques, and monitoring through research and transfer of knowledge.

In conclusion, youth sport can serve many purposes. It can be a meaningful activity for many children and give them a lifelong interest in physical activity as an important part of a healthy way of life and as a source of pleasure and relaxation. It can also form future elite sportsmen and women and become a means for self realization and success for young people who have a talent for sports. For many children, sports are also an important environment for socialization and they play a vital role in the reproduction of culture. However, given the recent developments outlined above, many steps still need to be taken in order for youth sports to fulfill any of these aims in an optimal way.


  1. Gatz, M., Messner, M. A., & Ball-Rokeach, S. J. (Eds.) (2002) Paradoxes of Youth and Sport. State University of New York Press, Albany.
  2. Hantrais, L. & Kamphorst, T. J. (1987) Trends in the Arts: A Multinational Perspective. Giordano Bruno, Amersfoort, The Netherlands.
  3. Heinemann, K. (1986) The Future of Sports: Challenge for the Science of Sport. International Review for Sociology of Sport 21: 271-85.
  4. Kamphorst, T. & Roberts, K. (1989) Trends in Sports: A Multinational Perspective. Giordano Bruno, Culemborg, The Netherlands.
  5. Kremer, J., Trew, K., & Ogle, S. (Eds.) (1997) Young People’s Involvement in Sport. Routledge, London.
  6. Schultz Jorgensen, P., Gamst, B., & Andersen, B. (1986) Efter skoletid (After Schooltime). Socialforskningsinstituttet, Copenhagen.

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