Declining Youth Sports Participation in Sweden: Lessons for Parents in the United States
By Doug Abrams
Earlier this month, Radio Sweden aired a provocative four-minute piece, entitled “Kids Leaving Youth Sports in Sweden.” The story reported that the familiar threesome — increased competition, overly involved parents, and costs — are “forcing more and more children out of youth sports teams.” The broadcast reported that youth sports participation declined nationwide by about a tenth between 2004 and 2013.
The Swedish Sports Confederation, the umbrella organization of the nation’s sports movement, says that few youth athletes drop out before the age of 12. The greatest exodus occurs among children between 13 and 16, the age when (as the radio broadcast discussed) non-athletic interests and activities begin to draw teens’ attention. A Confederation official speculated that the exodus may be fueled by the fact that almost 90% of Swedish children begin organized sports before they turn six.
The official said that some parents “want to win more than the kid does,” and thus may “force kids to do things they might not like.” Adult-imposed pressure, he concluded, was “not a way to get [kids] to love sports . . . and be active for the rest of their lives.” Radio Sweden interviewed one father who attested that parents often “become too involved and . . . make it difficult and less fun for the kids – especially if the parents are pushing their child too much.”
Sweden and the United States
Sound familiar? Change the name of the nation profiled, and the Radio Sweden broadcast could have been a National Public Radio broadcast about the United States. The Wall Street Journal recently reported a decline in U.S. youth sports participation, and an earlier study reported that three-quarters of U.S. youth athletes stop playing by the age of 13. Among the reasons given most often by children who stopped concerned pressures imposed by parents and coaches.
Some American teens doubtlessly stop playing when they realize that they lag behind their peers in skills or strength, or when (like their Swedish counterparts) they develop new interests and activities. But many of the American teens who cite these developments may have begun looking elsewhere only after adult pressures deprived them of meaningful opportunities to participate.
Youth Sports In the Age of Globalization
American parents, coaches and youth league administrators should pay attention to news reports from other nations. In this age of globalization, nations can learn plenty from one another about overcoming a wide range of common economic, political and cultural challenges. Technology and instantaneous communication have made the world a smaller place, so the globalization of youth sports — its successes and its shortcomings – offers perspectives that can help influence the way our own communities treat young athletes.
In past columns, I have written about youth sports distresses in Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Gary Lineker, for example, is Britain’s second highest scorer in international soccer competition. Lineker recently called for a “parental cultural revolution” in British youth soccer to control “the abuse . . ., the damage” that he has seen some parents inflict on their children while he watched his own four sons’ games. “Who cares who wins an under-eights game?,” he wrote in the New Statesman magazine. “Who cares if a youngster makes a mistake? It’s how we learn.” He says that if parents would just “let their children enjoy themselves, you would be staggered at the difference it would make.”
My earlier international columns highlighted acts of violence committed by overzealous youth sports parents, a problem not mentioned in the Swedish radio broadcast. Violence or no, add Sweden to the list of countries where many parents, by imposing unreasonable pressure and unrealistic expectations locally, compromise values advanced by national sports governing bodies here in the United States and overseas.
“Youth Sports and Sport For All”
One such national governing body is the Swedish Sports Confederation. The Confederation proudly calls Sweden “one of the world’s most sporting nations,” with three million citizens enrolled in 22,000 clubs that reach almost every town and village. Affiliated with the Confederation are 67 specialized federations that span the full range of sports, from A (the Swedish American Football Federation) to W (the Swedish Wrestling Federation). “Almost half of Sweden’s seven million inhabitants between the ages of 7 and 70 are members of a sports club – as active competitors, keep-fitters, leaders, trainers or supporters. Some two million of these are active sportsmen and women. Less than one percent of this figure can be said to belong to the élite; that is, they compete at national championship level.”
In 2012, the Confederation specified the dominance of youth sports. “More than two out of every three boys and every other girl between the ages of 7 and 15 belong to a sports club.” The dominant position reflects the Swedish government’s goal to “encourage and facilitate the participation of children, young people and adults in sport and exercise with the aim of promoting good public health.”
The Confederation’s blueprint remains age-specific. “In children’s sport [up to age 12] we play and let children learn different sports. The child’s all-round sporting development is the norm for children’s sport. Competition is an aspect of the game and must always be conducted on the children’s own terms. In youth [up to age 20] and adult sports we distinguish between competitive, performance sports and sports for all or fitness sports.”
In other words, the Confederation does not advocate national recreation leagues that spurn competition and submerge the desire to win as youths grow older. Instead, the Confederation seeks to sustain broad participation by recognizing the value of competition, but also by striving to assure fulfilling, healthy opportunities at all age, ability and interest levels.
All Youth Sports Policy is Local
In Sweden as in the United States, national sports governing bodies typically seek to encourage broad youth participation in supportive environments. But children play organized sports locally, where resistant parents and coaches can undo national standards in their own homes, and on the teams and leagues they administer.
As American parents exercise their prerogatives to guide their children’s upbringing, trends toward diminished participation here and in other nations should raise red flags. With so many child athletes quitting in frustration by their early teen years because adults have taken the fun from the game, parental pressure may abort more collegiate and professional careers than it creates. Some children who quit playing early, before ever developing skills and demonstrating genuine talent, might have reached higher levels of competition with better parental management of the youth sports pressure cooker.
“Youth Sports and Sport for All”
“Sport is physical activity that we undertake with a view to getting fitter, having fun or feeling good,” says the Swedish Sports Confederation. “Sport consists of training and fun, competition and display.”
A Confederation official told Radio Sweden that he recognizes the challenges that parental attitudes pose for that nation’s youth sports ideals. American adults at the local level would better serve child athletes’ emotional and physical needs by reaching the same recognition, by stanching the steep national dropout rate among young teens, and by continuing to pursue the Swedish Confederation’s ideal – “youth sports and sport for all.”