How Parents & Coaches Can Help Create Great Youth Sport Programs

According to the 2020 ParticipAction Report Card, 77% of youth aged 5-19 participate in organized sport programs. As a sport community we recognize that youth may participate in many different sports – and that is a very good thing! We encourage the multi-sport model, although each sport may hold out hope that athletes will ultimately stick with their own program. As such we are disappointed, but not surprised, when athletes leave programs, assuming it is part of the transitory nature of youth sports. But what if there is more to an athlete’s decision when deciding whether to participate in or leave a sport program?

To quote John O’Sullivan, international bestselling author of Giving Youth Sports Back to Our Kids, “People do things because they get enjoyment from them, and stop doing them when they stop getting enjoyment from them.” We must acknowledge then that youth may leave our sport programs not just because of an affinity for another activity, but because they may no longer consider them fun. The obvious question then is, “How do we design sport programs that youth consider fun?”


Keys to a Great Youth Sport Program

Fortunately, Dr. Amanda Visek, a professor of Exercise Science, has done research on just this topic. In 2014, she published her research which aimed to determine what constituted “fun” in youth sports. After surveying athletes, parents, and coaches she determined that fun can be divided into 81 different factors.


The Top 5 Fun-Factors:

1) Trying one’s best

2) Respect from coach

3) Getting opportunities to compete

4) Playing well together as a team

5) Getting along with one’s teammates


Fun Factors that Rated Lower:

48) Winning

63) Playing in tournaments

66) Practicing with specialty coaches

67) Earning medals or trophies

73) Traveling to new places to compete


It’s clear from Visek’s research that the opportunity to train and compete in a positive environment is much more important to youth than winning or accolades. And yet, as adults, we can often mistake the order of these values when designing our programs and communicating with youth.

Speaking recently as part of the BC Athletics & Cycling BC Virtual Performance Summit, O’Sullivan discussed the RIVER concept, which stands for:

R – Relevant. Individuals feel they have a role and a reason why they are there.
I – Inspired. The sport environment creates enough of a challenge to motivate them as an athlete.
VValidated. Individuals know that others will listen to what they have to share.
EEmpowered. Individuals are made to feel good about themselves.
RRespected. Individuals are treated as a person first, rather than only as an athlete.

Having worked with sport programs at all levels in multiple countries, O’Sullivan noted that the programs which were most successful at retaining athletes were those whose members were able to “bathe in the RIVER”. In this acronym we see the importance for coaches to create a positive sport environment.


The Parents Role

The role of the parent is just as important in creating this positive environment. O’Sullivan also shared that, when surveyed about their worst memory from youth sport, the #1 response from athletes was the ride home. He found that the biggest issue was that the parents didn’t fully consider the emotions of the child before having conversations about the sporting event. He advises parents and coaches to allow the youth to direct the conversation during the post-game/activity period. If they want to discuss the competition, great! If not, that is also fine. Whenever the discussion does occur, parents should try to stick to these three questions:

  1. What went well?            
  2. What needs work?         
  3. What did you learn?

Sticking to consistent questions, helps alleviate concerns youth may have that a parent’s approval is based upon their performance. If a parent is interested in branching out, another set of statements recommended, were:

Before the Competition:

  1. Play hard
  2. Have fun
  3. I love you

After the Competition:

  1. Did you have fun?
  2. I'm proud of you
  3. I love you


Major Takeaways

Having fun is important if we want to keep youth involved in our sport programs! Evaluate your clubs programs and ask yourself, “Are we offering something youth consider fun?” If yes, awesome; you’re doing a great job! If not, that’s okay. Take the opportunity to review the factors youth value and make those the foundation of your clubs programs.


Additional Resources:

2020 ParticipAction Report Card

How Many Sports Should My Kid Play

Sport For All, Play For Life: A Playbook To Get Every Kid In The Game

Changing the Game Project

The Fun Integration Theory: Towards Sustaining Children and Adolescents Sport Participation – Dr. Visek


Author: Sabrina Nettey - Introductory Programs Coordinator - Run Jump Throw Wheel & Junior Development