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Part 4: The Sports Context: Youth Sports have changed. How are our young athletes doing?

Updated: Jun 26

(Series: Coaching: Creating a Practice Environment Where Athletes Will Thrive)

For coaches and parents, the sports context in Canada is very different today from when we were kids. Communities’ investments in facilities and equipment have improved organized sports opportunities. Coach and officials’ training has advanced programming and events. These have led to more structured, coach-led programs and early specialization with year-round sports programs. How have these contributed to changes in how our children and youth are engaging in sports, physical activity, and recreation? 

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Research into the physical activity of children and youth in Canada has highlighted that they are less active today and have less diverse sports experiences. The Canadian Sport For Life Society has emphasized Physical Literacy as an essential component of quality sports programming. Researchers are finding, and coaches have been observing for some time, that many children entering sports lack fundamental movement skills and physical literacy. Here are some shortcomings of these changes in youth sports:

Maintaining the Fun in a Performance Focussed System, Presentation by Kevin Shields

The consequence of these shortcomings in today’s sports context, as identified by Sport For Life in 2019, is an over-specialization which is leading to burnout, injury and limited development for young athletes. A more in-depth analysis reveals the unintended consequences of changes in the youth sports context:

  • Poor movement capabilities.

  • Limited skill development.

  • Lack of proper fitness.

  • Athletes had underdeveloped and unrefined skills due to under-training.

  • Athletes failing to reach their genetic potential and optimal performance level.

  • Reduced participation of youth in sports and physical activity, especially by girls.

Reference: Long-Term Development in Sport & Physical Activity 3.0 (2019), LINK

Dr. Craig Harrison of The Athlete Development Project (in his blog post from March 25, 2024—Link) has some awesome advice for coaches working in this new sports environment:

"In the rush and excitement to do more things, it's easy to forget who we're doing it for." It is clear that many youth are not thriving in the current environment. Coaches and program designers need to assess the diverse needs of the players on their teams and create a space where people feel they belong, have mobility, and can thrive.


What are your observations of the changes in the youth sports environment? As a coach, parent, youth participant, official or other. Please comment below.

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