Sport Psychology PLAYS Research Group

Sport Psychology

PLAYS Research Group

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The PLAYS blog is written by Veronica Allan, PhD Candidate. For general inquiries, ideas, comments, or suggestions, please contact Veronica at


PLAYS Blog Post #4

Parental pressure and the professionalization of youth sport: Who pays the real price?

At the end of her work day, full-time elementary school teacher and single mother Vanessa* has a busy evening ahead of her. After picking up her two children from school, she plans to rush home and cook dinner in time to get her 11-year-old daughter to hockey at 6:00pm, followed by soccer at 7:00pm. Since the age of 7, both of her children have played on year-round competitive travel teams in both hockey and soccer.

“Chaos. The word I can say is chaos,” states Vanessa of her busy sports schedule, “It’s crazy, but I wouldn’t change it.” As a formerly competitive athlete, Vanessa sees important value in her children’s sport participation. Not only do sports keep her children physically active, but she also sees them building social skills and work ethic.

For the most part, parents are right on the money when it comes to the benefits of organized sport participation. An extensive body of research demonstrates that sport involvement can have positive effects on physical and mental health, interpersonal skills and relationships, and overall development. Parents enroll their children in sport with good intentions. The issue is that young athletes are increasingly placed in high-pressure environments that are unfavourable for developing these positive outcomes.

A big part of the problem is the increasingly professionalized nature of youth sport in countries such as Canada, Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Parents are investing significant amounts of money, up to 10% of their annual income, and risking their long-term financial security to provide their children with the “best shot” at success in sport – from training camps and travel teams, to high-end equipment and private coaching. According to the 2016 TD Ameritrade Investor Survey, 60% of respondents were concerned about their ability to save for the future due to cost of youth sports. In light of these concerns, two-thirds of parents hoped their child would earn a college scholarship, and one-third dreamed of a professional sports career. The statistics tell a different story: around 2% of high school athletes will receive a college scholarship, and less than 0.2% will go professional.

While parents are bearing a significant financial burden, young athletes are faced with physical and emotional costs of their own. Dr. Travis Dorsch, NFL player-turned-assistant professor at Utah State University, is part of a research team that explores the relationship between family financial investment and children’s sport participation. In a recent study, they found that the more money families spent on their children’s sport involvement, the more pressure children perceived from parents to participate, which led to less enjoyment and motivation to continue in sport**.

“We have some data to suggest that parents and kids aren’t defining pressure the same way,” explains Dr. Dorsch. In other words, parents are viewing their financial investment as support for their aspiring young athlete. Meanwhile, athletes are perceiving this same behaviour as a form of pressure – and they don’t like it.

The downstream effects of parental pressure amidst a growing culture of youth sport professionalization are increasingly popular yet potentially harmful practices aimed to push athletes to the elite level. Early specialization is defined by the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM) as intensive, year-round participation in a single sport below age 12. While early specialization is one developmental pathway that researchers have identified for athletes to achieve elite status, it is not the only one, and it comes with substantial risk. Both the AOSSM and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have released consensus statements pointing to irrefutable evidence that, when compared against alternative developmental pathways, early specialization is linked with a greater prevalence of overuse injuries, overtraining, and burnout among youth athletes. The reports also highlight health concerns related to insufficient sleep, isolation from peers, and heightened levels of stress and anxiety. Perhaps even more concerning is the recent trend towards intensive, year-round participation in more than one sport at a young age – which has currently unexplored, but potentially just-as-serious consequences.

Physical injuries, psychological burnout, and a lack of enjoyment aren’t exactly a recipe for longevity and success in sport, and if youth are dropping out of sport despite (or because of) their parents’ financial investment, then both parents and athletes are at a loss when it comes to the return. Youth will not experience the benefits of sport participation, and there will be no college scholarship or professional career down the road.

“There is absolutely no evidence that the best [athlete] at 12 is the best [athlete] at 25. So, why?” asks Dr. Jean Côté, a full professor and the director of the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University. As a seasoned researcher and an established voice concerned with the psychosocial development of youth athletes, Dr. Côté served as an expert panelist for the AOSSM and IOC early specialization consensus statements. In addition to this work, he has also advised on the youth development guidelines of other major international corporations, including England’s Football Association (FA) and the United States’ National Basketball Association (NBA). As an alternative to early specialization, Dr. Côté recommends that young athletes sample before they specialize, and play before they practice. In other words, youth should be encouraged to participate in a variety of sports, and a variety of positions within each sport, before specializing in a sport that the athlete has chosen based on their personal interests and motivation. This is not to say that a child should participate intensively in every sport that they try for extended periods of time, but rather that they should have the opportunity to try a variety of activities so that they can choose to continue with the ones that they like. For example, a new athlete may try out track and field in the spring, soccer in the summer, cross-country in the fall, and hockey in the winter.  According to Dr. Côté, opportunities to play, or engage in activities that are led by youth for the purpose of fun and enjoyment, are important for developing interest in sport and the motivation to continue future sport participation.

Dr. Jessica Fraser-Thomas, a former doctoral student of Dr. Côté and current associate professor at York University, is another expert in the area of child and youth development through sport. During her doctoral work, she interviewed formerly competitive adolescent swimmers who had dropped out. The thing that struck her the most was that every single one of them told her, “‘I didn’t want to stop [swimming], I just wanted to stop [swimming] ten times a week.’” As a mother of five active children between the ages of 6 and 11, Dr. Fraser-Thomas feels as though she constantly has to “go against the grain” in current youth sport culture. A major flaw in professionalized youth sport systems is that they are designed to meet the needs of the 0.2% who will make it the top – not the other 99.8%.

That being said, Dr. Dorsch doesn’t believe the problem of parental pressure and the professionalization of childhood activities is unique to sport. He has extended his line of research to examine parental behaviours and their implications for youth in the performing arts. Preliminary findings suggest a similar trend. “I think it’s something inherent in our culture right now,” he states. Parents are up in arms to protect and promote their child’s potential for success. It’s a problem that comes at a great expense – financially, physically, and emotionally – for the families that can afford it. It’s another problem altogether for the lower-income families who get left behind.

For parents like Vanessa, it’s worth the risk. On top of her full-time career, Vanessa works part-time as a fitness instructor to help cover the costs of her children’s sport participation. “Their takeaway is more important than my free flow of money spending,” she says.

What that “takeaway” will look like is another question altogether. 


*Name has been changed.

**If you’re interested in hearing more about this topic from Dr. Dorsch, check out his recent TEDx Talk at Purdue University here: