Requiring commitment in youth sports is a terrible idea

Athletes invested in their youth sport programs attend more practices and perform better than those forced to participate through idealistic participation rules

Is it appropriate for coaches and clubs to require young athletes to attend practices or participate in competition? I often see this question or something like it in sport forums that I belong to on social media. And while I don't think this is a big concern within the youth sport industry, it should prompt coaches and clubs to examine their own team rules. Participation requirements are meant to improve training and support future performance, but their practicality depends on additional considerations, most importantly the athlete's level of interest in the sport.

Youngsters come to youth sport programs with a range of skills and experience; they also approach their participation with varying levels of interest, other time commitments, and dependence on family logistics for getting to and from sport activities. Requiring young athletes to commit themselves to a certain number of practices per week or other interpretations of full participation is impractical.

The idea of commitment in youth sport has been around for a long time. Some coaches want athletes to make their sport, and only their sport, an exclusive pursuit. There's no time to join other sports, play in the band, or to take the night off to do homework. Doing these things may cause friction with the coaches or other team members.

When coaches establish strict participation rules they are attempting to create good training and performance opportunities for athletes. There is nothing wrong with this, it's what coaches should be doing. It goes wrong though when participation in such opportunities is demanded rather than offered.

As usual, context matters

Club, high school, and collegiate settings all have different expectations for participation. Performance levels aside, the most obvious difference between these contexts is economic in terms of who pays for what. In club sports the athletes pay to participate, in high school most sport programs are free, and in college many athletes receive compensation through scholarship assistance and some through NIL opportunities.

Different settings affect participation rules. Colleges often assist athletes through scholarships or other types of compensation. In return, a collegiate athlete has an obligation to commit to team participation rules. Youth sport athletes pay clubs to participate, thus the level of participation is more appropriately set by the athlete or the family than it is by the club. This does not mean that coaches cannot make practice rules at all, just that any rules that are made have to make sense in light of the prevailing economic model.

The undertone of professionalization that exists in youth sport encourages many programs to take on the same practices and attitudes found in high schools and colleges even though performance and motivation between these contexts are demonstrably different. Things like practice frequency, travel and competition, sport medicine therapists, strength and conditioning sessions, all contribute to a professional training environment that some youth coaches think they have to create. Thus, it's not unusual to see the same kind of participation rules in youth programs as those at the collegiate level.

In youth sports these rules are inappropriate and can easily spark conflict between program providers and their clients.

Are participation rules effective? They can be if athletes are able to base their training options on their desired level of participation, and the requirements are seen as choices. But to offer enough practice options clubs have to have a large number of athletes, coaches, and training sessions. These clubs are rare.

Making rules you can't (or won't) enforce

The most common reason for these participation rules is frustration. They are a common though often ineffective reaction to what coaches see as poor training attitudes or lackluster performance. By making a fuss about whatever the rule addresses, coaches believe the problem is solved. It's not. I speak as a former swimming coach who occasionally thought that raising participation requirements on my club team would magically raise practice attendance and thus improve performance. This, of course, didn't work.

Thankfully it was early in my coaching career when I found out that making rules like this only raised the level of drama within the club. And given the economics of youth sports it would have been fiscal suicide to punish athletes for not participating as much as I would have liked. Rather than raising participation levels families would simply find another club or sport.

Attendance rules that are idealistic -- those that the coach thinks creates the perfect training situation -- are also unrealistic. Coaches who are unable to read the room, so to speak, will soon find themselves at odds with their athletes and their parents, and sometimes their club administration.

Investment, not commitment

As a general proposition, demanding commitment in youth sport programs is not a good idea because it requires youngsters to participate more than their interest in the activity would naturally support.

Coaches and clubs should be aiming for investment. When athletes become invested in the sport then participation and performance both increase, the team culture improves, and they become students of the sport. But investment takes time and requires the coaches and club administration to find a way to create an environment that athletes want to be in, not where they're forced to participate.

Commitment is a result of investment. It cannot be forced. Creating rules is easy but is mostly ineffective. Encouraging investment is hard but the long term benefits are what coaches and clubs are really looking for.